Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Guns 'n Bars

Arizona's new law allowing guns in bars went into effect today.

Since it is obviously a state that holds individual responsibility in high esteem, I humbly propose that Arizona amend its capital punishment law to include cases of fatal shootings in bars. These cases should be fast-tracked through the appeals process in order to reduce the costs of the process, thus likely reducing state budget costs and public tax rates. Proponents of the new gun law would surely have to agree since guns and capital punishment and taxes are perhaps the ultimate symbols, positive and negative, of respect for personal responsibility. Right?

Arizona's capital punishment statute defines capital homicide to include, among other kinds of aggravating circumstances, cases in which, "[i]n the commission of the offense the defendant knowingly created a grave risk of death to another person or persons in addition to the person murdered during the commission of the offense." (ARS 13-751, F-3).

A public barroom is clearly one such place. And simply bringing a gun into a bar satisfies the "knowingly" qualification in the statute.

Banana Leaves

Climate Change Adaptation Costs

The volume of politically-charged noise has increased recently regarding projections of how much big bad climate legislation might cost poor little innocent American consumer, whose country is responsible for about one third of total historic carbon dioxide emissions.

Here's just one example of the necessary push-back against what is a near-constant assault of cost projection distortions. In this episode, we see Cai Steger nail Jim Manzi for apparently representing a cost-effectiveness analysis as a cost-benefit analysis of Waxman-Markey, the important difference being that the former method compares how much you can get for your money among alternative possible policy options, while the latter weighs actual and projected costs and benefits of a policy or policies. Excluding benefits from policy evaluation makes any policy look too costly (but even then, in Manzi's confusing assessment the numbers are not that high), of course, if not totally absurd (as in, "let's make a new policy in which we spend a lot of money with absolutely no return, achievements, or positive effects").

A complex cost, or rather set of costs, often excluded from these kinds of discussions is the aggregate cost of adaptation and the wildly uneven distribution of these costs. A new World Bank study, assuming a 3.6°F (2°C) rise in global temperature over 40 years, the recommended baseline goal of mitigation efforts (now considered nearly impossible to achieve), finds that climate change adaptation starting in 2010 will cost $75-100 billion per year. The number is similar to that estimated in 2007 by the UNFCCC/IPCC, while the IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development) published a report earlier this month estimating 2 to 3 times that amount. Costs over time can decrease alongside early adaptation measures, but costs over time will increase the longer adaptation measures remain idle.

But remember also that the Bank's estimate is based on a projected 3.6°F temperature increase (the famous 2°C). A new UNEP report predicts that the world is now actually facing twice that: a 6.3°F increase in temperature, which is currently not only increasing but accelerating. This entails some pretty bad stuff,

"With every day that passes, the underlying trends that science has provided is . . . of such a dramatic nature that shying away from a major agreement in Copenhagen will probably be unforgivable if you look back in history at this moment," [Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP] said. He noted that since 2000 alone, the average rate of melting at 30 glaciers in nine mountain ranges has doubled compared with the rate during the previous two decades.

"These are not things that are in dispute in terms of data," he said. "They are actually physically measurable."

Other findings include the fact that sea level might rise by as much as six feet by 2100 instead of 1.5 feet, as the IPCC had projected, and the Arctic may experience a sea-ice summer by 2030, rather than by the end of the century.

These predictions indicate grave consequences for all countries and, for developing countries, costs that they cannot bear by themselves. Many developed nations acknowledge responsibility for developing world adaptation costs, for moral reasons since the developed countries are the main source of the problem as well as for reasons of political and economic self-interest. These are complex costs.

Meanwhile, here in the US we seem to be over the debate whether climate change even exists, and possibly even over the debate whether global warming is largely due to anthropogenic emissions, at least among those with reasonable disagreements. We now debate whether a $100 per year increase in household costs - which on some estimates would save money for individual households over time - are really worth all the time and effort to do something about climate change. Our elected officials across parties and all the way up to President Obama seem to believe that any truly significant measures are not worth the political costs.

Sorry, developing countries.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bits and Pieces - Iran Edition

I've been wondering if the clandestine plant was intended to be a finishing plant for the output at Natanz. Natanz would enrich uranium to reactor grade (3-4% U-235) and Qom would take that to 90+% for weapons. Its 50,000 centrifuges would provide capacity for reactor fuel and a bit more. Most of the capacity is needed to get from natural uranium to reactor grade, so 3000 centrifuges would be enough for a finishing plant.

There would be a problem with accountability of the uranium hexafluoride input and output. More input would be needed, and the IAEA would be monitoring the output, so if some went to a finishing plant, they would know. Unless they were kicked out.

FAS picks up on this idea and provides a lot of other technical background.


Some good analysis of the satellite imagery of that site that everyone seems to be zeroing in on. And a bit more.

Roger Cohen agrees with me that the negotiations need to be enlarged. So do Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, I think. They're all over the field and seem to be annoyed. They weren't asked for their advice?

Steve Hynd channels Bernhard in a takedown of the New York Times's take on German intelligence claims. From what I recall, Bernhard's pretty much got it right.

Scott Ritter argues the legality of the plant. I haven't had time to work through this argument in detail. James Acton offers the opposing viewpoint. I'll stick with saying that it would have been smart strategy, particularly if Iran's program is strictly for civilian nuclear power, to get ahead of the curve and provide much more access to IAEA inspectors. If legalistic arguments are all you've got, you've got a problem. And it's hexafluoride, Scott and Guardian!

A computer-constructed view of Israel's Dimona plant, from photos and descriptions by Mordechai Vanunu. Not all of it seems likely to be accurate to me. Via.

On the Location and Inspection of That Iranian Enrichment Plant

The United States has claimed that Iran has been building a clandestine enrichment plant. Iran confirms that there is such a plant, for peaceful uses, and has proposed an inspection.

But at least two underground sites have been identified by ISIS and bloggers. And there are likely more.

So which site will Iran allow to be inspected? And will that satisfy those who are suspicious about Iran's nuclear program.

Perhaps it would be useful for the United States to identify the site it's talking about. But, of course, that would give Iran some advantages in concealing equipment for the inspection if it is not being honest about those peaceful uses. Perhaps the United States could give the location to the IAEA inspectors.

I'm recalling the claims before the Iraq war that "we know where the WMD sites are." It turned out that every location the US government gave the international inspectors had no WMD.

The commentary on last week's revelations about Iran's program is being influenced by the lies that led us into the Iraq war. The United States government needs some credibility repair, too.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Fall - Borrego Trail

Photos by Cheryl Rofer

Bits and Pieces - September 28, 2009

Behind the Tea Parties. Including health care reform opponent Betsey McCaughey's connections to the tobacco and insurance industries. Via. And more. The Rolling Stone article notes that McCaughey refused an interview.

ISIS has published two possible sites for the Qom enrichment facility. Arms Control Wonk focuses on one of them. But two mean that, whichever of the ISIS sites it is, there is something, er, buried at the other one. More of Iran's nuclear complex?

After a flu shot does not mean because of the flu shot.

Intermediate Range Missiles

The New York Times this morning headlines one of its stories "Iran reports to have tested long-range missiles." There's a confusion that I've become more sensitive to that is important in the business about Iran, and other holders of missiles. The Times headline perpetuates it, and the story doesn't clarify.

Long is a relative word. But in the world of missiles, it is defined somewhat more precisely than for, say, a long hike, which depends on the capacity of the hiker.

According to that Wikipedia article, intermediate-range ballistic missiles (the kind Kenneth Adelman and others of us would outlaw) have a range of 3,000-5,500 km (1,865-3,420 miles). Above that, we are talking about intercontinental ballistic missiles, the ICBMs of the Cold War. I would call that "long."

The Times, however, is more generous.
Press TV said the Shahab-3 missiles has a range of between 800 and 1,250 miles. Parts of western Iran lie some 650 miles from Tel Aviv.
Doesn't even make it to IRBM status.

This is what is classified as a theater missile, for which reasonable defense exists. It is not what the vastly expensive missile defense installations being hawked by the neocons, with demos built in Alaska, tries to defend against.

Two very different issues.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Lost in the Furor

There were a couple of good op-eds on arms control issues in the New York Times this week, but they got lost with all the other furor.

Mikhail Gorbachev: America and Russia should do a joint assessment of missile threats. They could start from here.

Kenneth "Cakewalk" Adelman actually has a good idea: outlaw intermediate-range ballistic missiles across the board. But he seems to think America and Russia can do this by themselves. WRONG! You'd need negotiations with everyone who has them. America and Russia might come up with a first draft. Could be he's trying to distract from Obama's initiatives, too.

And on global warming:

Google Earth launches a climate change simulator.

What global warming looks like in glaciers.

The Thaw at the Roof of the World.

That Enrichment Plant and Nuclear Negotiations

The announcement yesterday that Iran has clandestinely been building another enrichment facility, in many ways, changes nothing, but it may open some opportunities.

James Acton makes a good argument that the facility should have been declared to the IAEA when the decision was made to build it. I would argue that, even Iran has behaved legally, the smarter thing, some time ago, would have been to open up to greater transparency. If its program is indeed oriented toward peaceful uses of nuclear power only, IAEA inspection would have confirmed this. Iran has invited the IAEA to inspect the site, which it pretty much had to do, but no date has been announced.

The claim that American and other intelligence services were monitoring the site for several years is persuasive. The nature of the site was probably not known for most of that time; excavations are relatively easy to see in overhead photos, but trucks with equipment would most likely unload inside the tunnels. Heightened truck traffic over the last few months would have been a clue that something was being installed, and “A senior intelligence official said Friday that Western spy agencies had ‘excellent access’ to the site, suggesting human spies had penetrated it.”

So President Obama has known about the site for some time, perhaps as long as he has been president. Joe Cirincione parses out some of the implications of this, which are consistent with the analysis of Obama’s strategies I began this week (here and here). Andrew Sullivan (h/t Helmut) and Juan Cole provided somewhat similar analyses.

I’ll agree that Obama has handled this well. Iran’s credibility is now seriously damaged, and even Russia now seems to have serious doubts about Iran as an ally. Obama’s change of direction in the missile defense deployments is worth rethinking in light of this week’s revelation. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that new intelligence changed his way of looking at the deployments; he just didn’t tell us all that new intelligence.

Israel is now in a box of its own. If the new site was hidden, how many other sites may be hidden and underground? Andreas Persbo suggests that there may be a clandestine facility for manufacturing feed gas. Not to mention that the new site is near Qom, one of Islam’s holy cities, collateral damage to which would have repercussions beyond the Moslem world. Iraq’s president now adds that Iraq’s airspace is not open to attacking Israeli warplanes (h/t Steve Hynd).

I think that Jim Walsh gets it right on sanctions.
A wise government hand once told me (when talking about North Korea) that “they will never change their nuclear policy in the face of sanctions, and they will never change their nuclear policy without sanctions.” The key to this nonproliferation koan is that sanctions give a country an incentive to alter their policy but that public in-your-face sanctions and finger waving only make governments dig their heels in. Sanctions create incentives for negotiation not capitulation.

The same is true for Iran: the more public the chastisement, the more likely that the answer will be resistance, no matter what the cost.
Mark Hibbs points out that the existence of secret sites means that banning enrichment loses effectiveness, just as does bombing. He also points out that pressure has not led to the abandonment of nuclear programs; that requires a change in the motivations of the state in question.

So the publicly advocated actions against Iran and the expectation that Iran should suspend enrichment have not been strengthened. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan plans to visit Iran next month for talks on the nuclear project.

The weakened Iranian position opens some opportunities, however, to moves that would encourage Iran to the leadership and recognition it wants through constructive actions. The public talks will continue in the vein we’ve become accustomed to. According to Julian Borger in The Guardian,
At [next Thursday’s] meeting the US will demand access to the plant within the next few days and to all other sites within three months. It will tell Tehran to open all notebooks and computers to inspection and answer questions about its suspected efforts to build a nuclear weapon.
But there could be additional talks, out of the public eye, that could explore internationalization of reactor fuel fabrication and the formation of a Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. Security guarantees from the United States (and Israel?), which haven’t been mentioned in some time, might also be part of this discussion. Unfortunately, Benjamin Netanyahu once again showed an inability to take the high road, so Israel’s credibility on these subjects has been damaged. But Erdogan could broach some of these topics during his upcoming visit.

Such a second track could split the already fractious Iranian government. Pressure alone will help to unify Iran, but a double-track strategy would amplify differences.

Separately, it would be a good idea, as George Perkovich suggests, to develop a “list of nuclear-related activities that have no non-military purposes.” Some activities, like enriching uranium to bomb-grade, are obvious, but there will also be gray areas, and they may be the most difficult. But it would improve the credibility of accusations if such a list existed. After the claims of WMD used to justify the Iraq War, this isn’t too much to ask.

September 2009

Chez Victor, Willy Ronis, 1955
I'd like to honor briefly a few people who passed away in September 2009 whose life-work, if unfamiliar, is worth getting to know:
  • Yesterday, the great Spanish classical pianist, Alicia de Larrocha left us with only recordings of her lush Mozart interpretations.
  • Last week, the inestimable punk musician-poet Jim Carroll - who cleverly ensured a certain irony to his own death - met with other people who died.
  • Two weeks ago, at the age of 99, the magnificent French photographer, Willy Ronis joined his beloved Marie-Ann.
  • The Spanish-French photojournalist, Christian Poveda, shot in his car in El Salvador three weeks ago at age 30, shortly before the release of his documentary film, La Vida Loca.
  • And Sam Carr, one of the great blues drummers and tractor-drivers of our time, went off yonder for a spell.
Place Vendôme, Willy Ronis, 1947

Friday, September 25, 2009

Central Asia in Nineteenth Century Russian Music

A week or so ago, I put some of Alexander Glazunov’s music on the cd player. It seemed to me that I was hearing some themes very like those of Alexander Borodin’s of Central Asia.

From the very first time I heard it, when I was a child, I have loved Borodin’s “In the Steppes of Central Asia.” And the picture that developed from it in my head was very much like what I saw when I finally got there. The immense spaces. A hoopoe flying up as we drove. The shortgrass prairie vegetation, the sage smelling like northeast New Mexico, but every inch of ground occupied by plants. I hated, hated, crunching some of them with each step, lovely little houseleek-like rosettes. And flowers. I would go back in a heartbeat.

Not the greatest sound on this video, but I like the photos.

Both Borodin and Glazunov. I thought that Russia accreted Central Asia long before their time. So I did some reading: Martha Brill Alcott’s The Kazakhs and Nicholas Riasanovsky’s A History of Russia. I probably should say something about my choice of references. I am mostly self-taught in history, but had some good guidance from my professors in my required college world history course. Dates are important. They tell you what came before which and therefore set limits on causation, which is difficult to trace in history anyway.

So was Russia active in Central Asia at the time Glazunov and Borodin were writing their music? I knew that there was a settlement period, something like the American push into the great plains, but I thought it was earlier.

Wikipedia, it turns out, has much of my answer. Borodin came first (1833-1887), and Glazunov (1865-1936) finished some of his music, the opera “Prince Igor” in particular, which contains many Central-Asian-inspired pieces that were popularized for the United States in the 1953 musical “Kismet.” And, I have to say this, Borodin was a fellow organic chemist.

So the simple answer to my question is that Glazunov probably picked up some Central Asian influence from Borodin. But by the time I figured that out, I still wanted to know what Russia was doing in Central Asia in the late 19th century. A lot, as it turns out.

There had been interactions between Russia and the Kazakh hordes for several centuries before because the trade routes to China passed through what is now Kazakhstan. To protect those trade routes, the Russians built a line of forts all the way south of Lake Balkhash; must have been close to Almaty from the one map I’ve seen. And Semipalatinsk was one of their cities. So it would have made sense to put a nuclear test site outside that city, on the steppe, some long time later.

But the big changes between Russia and Central Asia indeed came during the second half of the nineteenth century. And most Russian settlement came toward the end of that period and into the twentieth.

The remarkable thing is that Riasanovsky’s book, which looks to me like a standard text, with multiple editions, doesn’t mention Central Asia at all for this time period. The closest it comes is to mention that cotton cloth production increased greatly during this time. But it doesn’t say where the cotton was grown.

Friday Dinner Party Conversation Stopper

"...every political decision of any importance is intertwined with questions of social causality on which very diverse positions can be defended with a certain degree of plausibility. Whether it is a question of the effects of the minimum wage, unemployment benefits, or tax rates, we see professors of economics defending entirely opposed ideas. Thus an agent would have to be either very inept or very unfortunate not to be able to find some combination of normative principles and causal chains that would allow him to present his passion or his particular interest in an impartial light."
- Jon Elster, Reason and Rationality (2009)


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Change – Continued

This week’s stick to wave at President Obama is that he’s too oriented to policy. That seems like an odd criticism after eight years of wondering what our policy is (besides that democracy is good). But emphasis on policy fits right in with what I think President Obama is doing.

It’s also a slot that the commentariat can drop him into.
Both his ambition and his unique style of issue management show that Obama is emphatically a "policy approach" president. For him, governing means not just addressing discrete challenges as they arise, but formulating comprehensive policies aimed at giving large social ¬systems — and indeed society itself — more rational and coherent forms and functions. In this view, the long-term, systemic problems of health care, education, and the environment cannot be solved in small pieces. They must be taken on in whole, lest the unattended elements react against and undo the carefully orchestrated policy measures.
Now, Obama hasn’t said any of this. William Schambra did, in National Affairs. David Broder likes this.

Making the sort of argument that gets published in places like National Affairs, Schambra casts all of Obama’s actions as stemming from this policy approach. I think Obama is more practical than that. He’s got a lot of messes to deal with and a bent if not broken political discourse. How does anyone get anything done?

That’s not to say that he doesn’t have big ideas. They’re what got him elected. So, presumably, he should be trying to execute them.

If you’re going to use an inherently messy management strategy, you need to be clear about what your goals are and what you’re willing to do to get to them.. And you can’t have one team doing something that conflicts with what another team is doing. So you need to think big. My accelerated cleanup team got crosswise with the sampling team because they wanted them to do their sampling, now. The sampling team had a long schedule for sampling already. That was why they almost came to blows.

Policy is a way to look at what needs to be done and to put it together to minimize the conflicts. It’s not an end in itself, which seems to be Schambra’s objection, along with a bunch of pseudo-biography that I haven’t bothered with in my analysis. I’m just looking at what Obama is doing. Broder’s objection seems to be that the process mucks up clear and comprehensive legislation.

That’s all the more reason that someone has to be clear about goals and means, and the President is a pretty good candidate for that responsibility. I suspect a former senator is quite aware of just how fragmented legislation can become. So he gave a speech on health care reform to remind the legislators and the public where he wanted to go with it. So he’s working various aspects of the nuclear weapons program this week.

And, oh yeah, Schambra doesn’t like “czars.” And Joe Klein has an interesting question for him.

Bits and Pieces - September 24, 2009

For the first time, a vaccine has some effect against AIDS. Now to figure out why, and why it doesn't always work.

Boring can be good. Roger Cohen suggests that if Germany can be boring, maybe the Middle East can eventually be too.

Another good explanation of why all the technology and drugs in the world may not be what dying people need.

A triumph of advertising over the environment.

An Anglo-Saxon gold hoard in photos.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Bits and Pieces - September 23, 2009

Great Britain gets behind Obama's nuclear disarmament program. This is actually pretty significant. If America and Russia move toward 1500 warheads, that is getting close to where the other nuclear powers - Great Britain, France, China, Israel, India, and Pakistan need to be included in negotiations. So Britain is moving ahead of the curve.

Americans like the United Nations.

The Gulf States will pressure Russia and China against Iran.


Back when I was managing environmental cleanups for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, I had maybe a hundred people working for me. They included chemists, statisticians, samplers, and people who were good at getting things done.

Like many organizations, the Laboratory had its dysfunctionalities. I won’t go into them all; there was unhealthy competition among managers and some mistaken ways of thinking. It seemed to me that one of the mistakes was a poor model for management itself: the boss says, then the workers carry out the program.

The Laboratory, by its very nature, has many highly intelligent employees, quite capable of solving problems on their own, so such a model hardly makes sense. I realized that there was no way I could possibly have all the good ideas, nor did I want to shut out good ideas from others. Plus the infighting at higher management levels was something that the workers needed to be protected from if we were actually to clean up the sites we were assigned. I had seen damage wrought and opportunities missed from that infighting.

I had this odd idea that my teams were actually supposed to clean up some old septic tanks, outflow channels from metal-plating baths, dump sites, and other messes that the Laboratory had accumulated over the years. And the people working for me were energized by and enthusiastic about that idea.

So I said to them okay, you tell me how we’re going to deal with these messes. I was specific: this outflow channel, that dump site. But there was also an ongoing discussion as to how to prioritize, which sites to work on first, how to write contracts. We did a couple of small ones, the septic tanks and outflow channels, before we took on three acres of who-knows-what. Nice to have some successes under your belt before you try the hard stuff. You learn which things work and which don’t, and you build your confidence.

It was a messy process that required steely nerves on my part. Sometimes people would go away and I wouldn’t hear from them until they came back with a really good and rather complete plan. Other times they just couldn’t seem to get it, and I’d have to toss in a few suggestions from time to time. And there were a few who were poor workers; I dropped some, and others turned around. The messiest time, two of my teams almost (literally) came to blows. A meeting that started out tense ended up with each side understanding the other’s requirements and limitations, and they worked well together after that.

We cleaned up those three acres for $1.5 million and on schedule. The program office had projected $7.5 million just to dispose of the waste: that didn’t include front-end loaders or personnel. Yes, we could!

Fast forward to January 2009, Washington.

You’re a new president. The economy is in the tank. Two difficult wars are in progress. America has lost its standing in the world because of its repudiation of its own constitution. Congress has been dysfunctional for some time. Public discourse has reached a new low. You can’t do it by yourself.

I think I am seeing elements of my management strategy in Barack Obama’s approach. Every day brings a few more data points that fit. It’s a long-term strategy, though, so I wouldn’t expect to see big-time changes or results right away. It’s only eight months, and what Obama has to deal with is a lot more complex than safely removing three acres of unknown wastes.

Let me take two examples: health care reform and the place of nuclear weapons in the nation’s defense.

Health care reform is embedded in a bigger problem: how to get Congress working again. This cannot be done by exhortation. Congress has to learn how to get itself working. So Obama delegated the development and passage of the health care reform bill to Congress.

It’s been messy; famously, legislation is like sausage-making, and getting back to business is messy, so we’ve seen messy squared. Max Baucus’s attempts at bipartisanship, the August Town Halls, all that. But we’re starting to see things work: Baucus seems to be getting serious about a bill that can be passed. The business about bipartisanship is going away, largely because the Republicans can’t be bothered.

But they’ve been given their chance. And that’s an intriguing thing about this sort of management. Obama provides a broad outline of what he expects up front, but not the detailed bill. That gives supporters a chance to develop their own ideas and test them with their colleagues and the public. It also provides the opposition little purchase from which to attack. In fact, the opposition has two options: provide their own alternative or just say no. Providing an alternative opens them to attack. The Republicans have chosen to say no. Neither is attractive, and thus the opposition is weakened from the start.

The weaknesses of the draft bills are being debated, both in Congress and more broadly, and they are being fixed. Compromises are being struck. The legislative process is beginning to work again. People are coming to the realization that the legislation doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough to build on.

The nuclear issue is much longer-term. Obama laid out his thinking in his Prague speech on April 5, nicely timed to precede the Carnegie Nonproliferation Conference. And the location allowed him to remind people that impossible things happen: a black President, the end of the Soviet Union. He has ordered a nuclear posture review.

Again, there was the expectation of boss knows best. Just as he was criticized for allowing a dysfunctional Congress to write the health reform legislation, there was a flurry of concern that the generals and other defense interests would write a nuclear posture review with goodies for their interests: no reductions in numbers, Reliable Replacement Warhead, missiles galore, Star Wars, you name it. As apparently they did. And Obama has told them to go back to the drawing board. Sometimes they just don’t seem to get it, and the boss has to toss in a few suggestions.

Obama is reiterating that “back to the drawing board” in public, too, just in case anyone didn’t get it. And he’s started negotiations toward his goals in START talks with the Russians, the Committee on Disarmament, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization. There will be more discussion, and it will be messy. And we will hear from Obama, not laying down the law, but nudging people in the right direction.

Daniel Levy considers Obama’s strategy in the Middle East and finds progress and direction, despite the nay-sayers who would, once again, insist that the boss pronounce a strategy and everyone else fall into line. Marc Lynch concurs.

The projects I ran this way were extremely successful in meeting their goals. Not only that, everyone involved got a lot of satisfaction from them, and we had a lot of fun. The problems were with the managers above me. They didn’t understand what I was doing or why it was successful, so they felt they had to mess with the projects and destroyed them.

Obama won’t have those management problems. But there are others. There is a widespread incomprehension of this management style. I have seen very little commentary that deviates from the boss-knows-best assumption. So he is criticized for being indecisive or losing control of the narrative.

But we’re a democracy. We need a productive Congress and a citizenry who can debate what is best for the country. The Decider and his model of the Presidency didn’t allow for that, and previous presidents neglected it. It’s about time we got back to it.

Ending Fossil Fuel Subsidies?

This is pretty big news and didn't look likely a week or two ago, adding a bit of optimism to this discussion from yesterday. Pres. Obama wants to work towards ending fossil-fuel subsidies globally. There's little reason oil companies should continue to be subsidized when they already make enormous profits. There's little change to so-called "energy security" except for the better since the US depends overwhelmingly on foreign-based oil. And it's a move towards reducing consumption of fossil fuels, thus reducing air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions leading to global warming. Furthermore, it puts renewable energy technology development in a position to compete in the marketplace with giant fossil fuel companies.

If you're against the Muslim socialist revolution Obama is bringing to America, you should be all for this proposal since it subjects fossil fuel production and use to market forces rather than government support while decreasing dependence on Middle East oil. Right?

A Good Sign

In this latest "terror plot" (quotes because not much has been shown to be a terror plot yet), we can be pleased that the terror color has not been ratcheted up to red. I assume that it stays at orange for airports, whatever that means.

But we can be glad that the TSA's duties have not yet ratcheted up to full body searches for everyone. In fact, there seems to be no change; at least no public panic like that for the "liquid explosive" bombers.

A small victory for rationality.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Nobody Has Any Standing to Foreclose?

That's what Matt Taibbi says.

Degrading Sentiments

Now and then, Lindsey Graham impresses me as possibly the most leveled-head Republican voice.
“I am not going to give into sentiments that I think degrade the office of the president and that degrade the debate and the culture of our country. So if you come up to me calling the president a socialist, a Muslim, you’re talking to the wrong guy," - Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
Lindsey Graham.

Could We Please Not Do This?

No, those squiggles are not Arabic. I don't know the Arabic alphabet, but I do know that it's written from right to left, not the other way around, the way English does it.

It's annoying and condescending: those incomprehensible squiggles that others use must fit into English somehow! And if you know the alphabet, it's disorienting, requiring a bit of thought. Like the Russian Я, which is not a backwards R, but the sound "ya." Gets me every time.

And, um, a translator works with written texts. An interpreter gives you the meaning of spoken words in real time. From my first visits to the United Nations, I've always admired interpreters.

The Copenhagen Protocol...

...ain't going to happen, at least not this December. They know this at the G-20 meetings taking place this week in Pittsburgh. Kim Carstensen of WWF suggests that,
“it’s “clear we aren’t going to get everything in Copenhagen,” and leaders should work on their “political messaging” so the gathering won’t be seen as a failure.
The UN conference on climate change that everyone has been anticipating will take place in Copenhagen this December 7th-18th (technically, the Conference of the Parties 15 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change [COP15 of the UNFCCC]). There have even been giddy discussions about what to call the new agreement to be generated by the meetings. Should it be the "Copenhagen Protocol"? Or should it remain true to its origins and be called the "Kyoto Protocol II"? Or maybe "The Amazing Technicolor Climate Fantastic"?

Unfortunately, and even though many are still propagating the hope, it's looking increasingly unlikely that a final text will come out of Copenhagen. States have had over a decade since the Kyoto Protocol, with the clock ticking faster and faster, and agreement on the basics of the successor treaty is still a mess.

To give a quick background, the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997 and entered into force in 2005 after Russia ratified. The Protocol created binding targets for its Annex I parties (the main industrialized countries and the EU) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) globally by 5% using the baseline of 1990 levels, the reductions occurring over the 2008-2012 period. Emissions reduction rates vary among individual Annex I countries. 84 countries were original signatories in 1997, including the US, which had been heavily involved in drafting the agreement. A signature, however, is only a general non-binding commitment to a treaty. Ratification is the binding commitment to the treaty. As of August 2009, 189 countries comprising a total of 63.7% of all global emissions had both signed and ratified the protocol.

As for the two largest emitters... the US, of course, has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, despite contributing about 29% of total global GHG emissions, by far the largest contribution to the problem. China has ratified but is not bound by any concrete commitments in the Kyoto Protocol, the idea being that China and other major developing countries would be phased into ensuing treaty rounds. China has recently surpassed the US as the largest overall GHG emitter on the planet, but still emits only about 25% per capita of US emissions per capita. Even though the country is making some inroads and the reality of global warming is now widely accepted, the US remains one of the very worst according to the Climate Change Performance Index. China is not a whole lot better as its economy is largely run on dirty coal. But I know firsthand that China is making serious strides towards a much greener, more sustainable future. While Rome burns and the US fiddles, China is at least rounding up water buckets.

The effects of climate change are already felt in various parts of the world and will increase in intensity and magnitude - rising sea levels and therefore coastal flooding, desertification, and biodiversity loss, and more intense and frequent hurricanes are only some of the more visible effects. People are little by little figuring out that the effects will run deep and broad, beyond what we've imagined (for one example of the latter, see here). The great tragedy of the problem of climate change is that those who are most vulnerable to its negative effects are also those who are least responsible for the problem: the poor, particularly in non-industrialized, least-developed countries. This reality is a major part of the deep moral imperative for the wealthy developed countries to act on climate change.

Upon taking office in 2001, however, Pres. Bush stated that the US would never accede to the protocol, withdrew the US from the agreement, and that was that. This decision, in my view, was mainly based on a myopic assessment of short-term economic costs and benefits. The debate over the reasons is laid out in an older post here (see also this post on the problem of climate change).

As of today, the EU is still trudgingly developing an increasingly sophisticated carbon market. A huge amount of time and resources is going into this from all corners of the globe. In the US, Pres. Obama earlier this year appointed a number of important scientific, technology, economic, and policy experts serious about tackling climate change to positions at EPA, DOE, OSTP, and elsewhere. The Obama administration is pushing more serious efforts on a number of fronts: scientific and technological, economic, policy-making, and moral analysis. For its part, China has been developing much stronger domestic environmental regulations, is vigorously pursuing renewable energy technology development, and is little by little giving birth to a genuine environmental ethic of its own. Everyone, now, wants a real agreement on climate change. One of the central obstacles, perhaps the most important, is the confused mess that is domestic environmental politics in the US. Obama and US environmental policy-makers have to manage the two-level game of doing both what's best and most feasible at the international level and, at the domestic level, tackling very different and often convoluted ideas of what's best and navigating the realities of political feasibility. Many politicians and media commentators in the US loudly deny climate change, confuse US citizens about the facts, probabilities, and responsibilities, and play the insidious game of seeking short-term corporate and political gains contrary to long-term human interests. The actions and words of this small minority of the American population affects not only US citizens but also the world....

The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. It had been widely anticipated that the Copenhagen meeting would produce the new global treaty for tackling climate change that replaces and moves far beyond the Kyoto Protocol as a much more robust and effective agreement making a real dent in the problem. The US with its new administration and China with its rising environmentalism have both been making noises about offering genuine and deep commitments in the new global climate change treaty. Years of negotiations, workshops, conferences of the parties and meetings of the parties, summits like the G-20 and the December 2007 meeting in Bali, etc. would have culminated in the grand outline treaty finally hammered out in Copenhagen.

But... a finalized treaty text is not going to happen by Copenhagen. Even if there were agreement, a study released on Sunday shows that the aggregate of current country commitments doesn't come close to the minimum target of limiting global warming to 2˚C suggested by scientific consensus.

The study by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) states that by 2020, total GHG emissions of industrialized (Annex I) countries would decline by between only 5% and 17%, relative to 1990, depending on the conditions associated with the pledges.

The aggregate proposal falls short of the 25-40% range referred to by negotiating Parties in 2007. In particular, a reduction of only 5% would merely carry forward the Kyoto Protocol targets to the next decade.

...And do pretty much nothing since Kyoto's target of 5% global emissions reductions was always more symbolic of international cooperation than an actual physical mitigation of the problem. (Although the upside is that the cost to Annex I countries of their current offers would likely be less than expected, not exceeding "0.01-0.05% of the GDP of all Annex I countries" in the most generous reductions scenario of 17%).

This is all a round-about way of getting to my main not-terribly-profound point here. That is, the common, optimistic message that a full-blown agreement will emerge from Copenhagen is quite likely harmful in itself, leading to disappointment and to further disaffection regarding the capabilities and competence of the UN and, frankly, the world for accomplishing something vital to the world as a whole. In other words, pushing the message in the belief that this then places more pressure on states to come to a concrete agreement by December has political risks probably not worth the gamble.

Obviously, if we never get to an agreement, it'll all be for naught and we may as well admit that climate change adaptation, however costly, is the best we can do. But we also need to ensure that we end up with a truly robust agreement rather than another product of harried diplomats acting on the pressures of short-sighted economic and political self-interest.

Given the present realities on the ground, however, it's actually a positive development to hear the expectations-dampening messages on climate change coming out of the current G-20 meeting.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Seeing Cheryl's post below a moment ago, I thought I'd share a photo taken on vacation last month. Look just to the right of the island. I thought it was pretty cool.

Photo: Helmut


We just had a very nice rainstorm here for the little plants I planted yesterday.

A bit of hail, but nothing serious.

But here's the storm, headed south. Usually a rainstorm looks more homogeneous than these filaments. The tannish haze around their lower parts suggests they are kicking up dust. Click on the photo for a much bigger version.

Photo: Cheryl Rofer

There wasn't an extraordinary amount of wind associated with the storm when it passed here. But the hail showed some strength. And these aren't full-up tornadoes, just interesting filaments.

More University Courses on Conservatism?

Mark Lilla, via Sullivan, laments an alleged dearth of courses in conservative thought in liberal academia. He writes,

The unfortunate fact is that American academics have until recently shown little curiosity about conservative ideas, even though those ideas have utterly transformed American (and British) politics over the past 30 years. A look at the online catalogs of our major universities confirms this: plenty of courses on identity politics and postcolonialism, nary a one on conservative political thought. Professors are expected to understand the subtle differences among gay, lesbian, and transgender studies, but I would wager that few can distinguish between the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute, three think tanks that have a greater impact on Washington politics than the entire Ivy League.
I find this pretty specious and want to make a few loose points here. Nonetheless, it's probably correct that if you apply the rigorous analytical method of "a look at online catalogs of our major universities," tally up what conservatives believe are liberal political courses versus ones they believe are truly courses on conservatism, and furthermore require the latter, apparently, to contain the word "conservatism" in the title of the course offering, then academia is indeed a totally liberal institution.

There's a lot wrong with Lilla's statement. Anecdotally speaking, I suppose there are indeed plenty of courses on post-colonialism and identity politics. But even if they're largely taught by scholars with leftist political concerns, it's not clear that these subjects are intrinsically liberal. Conservatives - perhaps rightly so since a lot of cultural studies is annoying to lefties too - haven't seemed to show much interest in taking them seriously, however, except to create leftist oogedy-boogedies out of them. They should take them seriously. Much of conservative politics today is deeply engaged in its own identity politics, although it doesn't call it that. A serious engagement with other historical and emergent identities may teach much to everyone about their own. It might also show more clearly how, regardless of all the swipes at cultural studies subjects as relativistic, conservatism has developed a rather radical, unrecognized form of cultural and moral relativism at its very core. On the other hand, however, cultural studies types of courses on identity and so on don't always spend much time on actual political philosophy, which you would find in more abundance in philosophy and political science departments.

As far as I know, though, much of current cultural studies focuses on the intersections between asymmetrical cultures/groups and the ways in which people's ideas, values, and beliefs are constituted through the interaction of multiple cultures and overlapping communities rather than somehow singular and essential identities or single communities. A certain brand of conservatism assumes the latter, perhaps by definition. Whatever one thinks of the methods and claims of cultural studies, that conservative assumption seems rather unempirical in our time. It would be helpful to understand better why.

Second, it's certainly true that the Heritage Foundation, AEI, etc. are hugely influential on Washington politics (although I have no idea what Lilla means by his Ivy Leaguer claim - these institutions would disappear if you got rid of their Ivy Leaguers). That would help explain a lot about the very essence of Washington that gets brushed aside in the age-old effort to paint political-bureaucratic Washington and its media as liberal. In fact, before John Podesta's Center for American Progress came along at the end of the Clinton presidency, the only genuine liberal contender in terms of thinktank influence was the ultra-moderate Brookings Institution. I guess it's important that we know the distinction between these different thinktanks. But isn't that ultimately kind of limited? Here are the self-professed conservative ones, here are the liberal ones. See you next semester.

There's a further element here that Lilla elides. These institutions are political animals most of the time and sites for the production of new knowledge and ideas much less of the time. The term "thinktank" doesn't mean that they're exactly like universities; rather, they're places where intellectual activity is directed at supporting certain ideological positions in the policy world. Studying these institutions would offer insight into the mechanics of thinktank politics and the crafting of policy in Washington. But it wouldn't necessarily give you as much as Lilla seems to believe in terms of substantive ideas.

Third, we have courses in academia like "Political Theory," "Ethics," and so on for which the course title doesn't tell you much about the ideologies/theories you might actually study in these courses. These courses don't appear to count in Lilla's "look at online catalogs." I read Allan Bloom in such a course back when he was all the rage with his book The Closing of the American Mind. I've read some of Sullivan's hero, Michael Oakeshott, in such courses as well as Plato, the medieval Catholic scholars, Hume, Burke, de Maistre, Strauss, and perhaps others thinkers that conservatives would claim as one of their own. I teach Robert Nozick, with whom I disagree but enjoy immensely, every semester. It's just false that there's no conservative thought presented in universities - you just might not be able to see it from glancing at course catalogs. Further, it's pretty difficult to disentangle what Americans mean by conservatism and liberalism from a shared ancestry in liberal political philosophy. John Locke, for example, left both contemporary political strains with probably the most important modern philosophical argument for private property. Nevertheless, I think it's also strange to have such a single-minded focus on identifying who counts as a proper conservative and then teaching that. But I suppose a lot of academics advance their pet ideologies to some degree.

A further complication, however, is that it's not all that clear in political theory/philosophy what precisely conservatism is as a rigorous philosophical view rather than a collection of political stances and cultural preferences. Much of political theory in general minimizes the importance of where things lie on a made-up political spectrum and more on which arguments are strong and which are weak. Without a reasonable and compelling political philosophy, it's difficult to agree on what we're talking about. This may be part of the confusion for everyone.

Fourth, Lilla's claim that conservatives don't get hired in academia, a claim David Horowitz has morphed into a lucrative witch-hunt, requires a lot of evidence that just doesn't seem to be there. Yes, the majority of academics characterize their own politics as liberal or progressive, but there are other legitimate explanations for this rather than some pernicious conspiracy to hire only liberals. I've been on the faculty side of academia now for nearly a decade and I've never witnessed someone being turned down because they were conservative. In my own experience, I've only seen or heard of a couple of scholars hired because they held conservative political views. But here we also have to make a distinction between reasonable conservatism and the sort that seems to dominate today's Republican Party and much of neo-conservatism. Should we have classes on the tea-party movement? Yes, as a historical event and as an interesting case-study of the formation of political movements. But does this belong in a course on, say, political theory? I wouldn't know how to teach tea-partyism. In political theoretical terms, it's really difficult to discern some coherent there there. In practical terms, it's difficult to discern any serious policy proposals (just no socialism, Marxism, and taxes, please).

Fifth, to be fair to Lilla, he isn't trying to push more conservative ideology on universities. He's suggesting that we ought to understand conservative ideas better and how they collectively comprise the intellectual core of a broader conservative political ideology serving as the backdrop for political action. We ought to have a better grasp of these ideas because they make up a big part of the roadmap for how Washington actually works. We might even see where conservative ideas work better in some cases than competing ideas.

But I think the lesson here goes both directions on a unilinear political spectrum. One thing we're after ideally in an academic setting is to further understand the world both broadly and deeply and to develop new capacities to form and understand stronger and better ideas and arguments - the spirit of liberal education - rather than to shore up a priori ideologies. Conservatives seeking to defend and advance some core set of principles, values, ideas, and beliefs which they sincerely believe to be true or good or right could serve their own cause by helping everyone else understand those things through reasonable, coherent, and strong arguments, rather than through foot-stomping, ad hominem put-downs, and straw men. They could also do themselves a service by genuinely seeking to understand where competing ideas work even better in some cases than their own.

Such an exchange, of course, has an immensely important place in the university.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Estonian Reaction to the Missile Defense Decision

Well, I've finally found an article about the missile defense decision in an Estonian newspaper. Eesti Päevaleht has an article today.

Urmas Paet, the Estonian Foreign Minister, has been visiting the US this week. He met with Hillary Clinton and others while he was in Washington. He also met earlier in the week with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Secretary-General of NATO. Presumably all these meetings were part of the administration's getting out the word on the missile defense system.

In the Päevaleht article, Kadri Liik, the head of the think-tank that published a letter to Barack Obama signed by a number of eastern European intellectuals and former government officials said that she doesn't think that the decision is "a big tragedy," nor does she think (I'm being a bit loose here, but it's close) that the US is throwing them under the bus.

There's more in the Päevaleht article about NATO issues (there will be a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Tallinn next April) and energy issues than there is about the missile shield decision.

Not a Mango

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bits and Pieces - September 17, 2009

Congratulations to Sig Hecker! If you hadn't been at Los Alamos during the 1990s, you can't quite imagine what a big deal this is. [Full disclosure: Sig is a friend.]

Ehud Barak: Iran is not an "existential issue for Israel."

Hazardous waste dumping in Africa.

Since there's never enough said about the foolishness of missile defense, here's the administration's fact sheet about the decision.

Assessment of yet another threat.

…And the Beat Goes On…

The Cold War has just never ended for some. If Russia says something and if the United States then does anything that relates to Russia’s stated preferences, it is a sign of weakness. Not manliness. Giving in.

Just like President Medvedev’s recent submission to Joe Biden’s criticisms. Except that this confluence of events wasn’t seen that way. Rightly.

Countries take action for a variety of reasons. Those with experience in international affairs recognize this. They may try to spin events one way or another, but they recognize it’s not a simple tit-for-tat, even though they may occasionally play that game too.

So George Bush, urged on by the neoconservatives, offered antimissile installations to the Czech Republic and Poland. Russia didn’t like this. That was, of course, part of the neocons’ purpose, and possibly Bush’s. They played innocent: the installations were to protect the US “homeland” from Iran’s missiles.

So of course, we must expect concessions from Russia for the change in plans on those installations. Here’s a more convoluted example of that argument.


The negotiations were never with or against Russia, remember? Except for that neocon preference for Russia as enemy.

Diplomacy is hardly ever one simple thing in exchange for another. It’s sideways and developing an environment in which one might do business. It’s making decisions in one’s own national interest.

Which just might be the case here. Is it in our national interest to irritate Russia for a missile emplacement that is poorly suited to its ostensible job? Is it in our national interest to prolong the post-Soviet fears of some in the former satellites and republics? That is getting to be twenty years back, now.

Yes, Russia has been too aggressive toward its former sphere of influence. Maybe if they were less jittery because of perceived American aggression into that area, they would back off. But that’s not a simple calculation either.

There is a lot of truth in what Secretary Gates said this morning. The Polish and Czech installations were only marginally related to US national interests for a number of reasons.
A Pentagon spokesman, Geoff Morrell, described Obama's decision as a "major adjustment" that would better protect US forces and allies in Europe from Iranian missile attacks.

"We are adjusting our system to make sure our forces and our allies are protected from that changing and growing threat. Just as the threat has developed, so too has our technology. We believe we have a more flexible, capable system to deploy to protect our forces and friends in Europe," he said.

"This improvement to the system has nothing to do with Russia and everything to do with Iran." [from The Guardian]
But oooh! the optics! We’re giving in to Russia!

Well, those who write that way could just as easily spin it other ways. They are contributing to (providing?) the optics. They seem to have very little direct knowledge of what is in fact being said in those countries they claim are being “abandoned.”

Russia’s reaction has been very low-key. Even Pravda has restrained itself. But those bases aren’t primarily a Russia-America issue, remember.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s Secretary-General, will meet with Russia’s Foreign Minister next week. Russia would like better relations with NATO, and a better understanding between the two would go a long way toward setting some of Russia’s concerns.

Nothing in diplomacy is simple. It’s possible that there has been or will be some movement on Russia’s part that comes about because of improved relations now that they don’t have to worry about Cold War radar and missile emplacements in their former satellites. Maybe historians in thirty years will call that movement a concession.

Obama Replaces Flawed Narrative

by Cheryl Rofer and Molly Cernicek

George Bush sold a radar to the Czech Republic and some missiles to Poland. They’re to protect the US “homeland” against Iranian missiles, he said. But (wink, wink, nod, nod) some of the people who used to live under the shadow of the Soviet Union took these installations to mean that the US would protect them against Russia. And it was congenial to the US neoconservatives that Russia, already upset by Bush’s repudiation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, didn’t like it that the Czech radar would be able to see a long way into their territory.

The Czech Republic and Poland aren’t the optimum places to locate antimissile bases against Iran, and of course the US was paying the dollars for the installations, so the impression that Russia had something to do with it had some basis.

Back in the Cold War, the question arose in many minds as to whether, if Moscow decided to send nuclear missiles against London or Paris, the United States would send its nuclear missiles against Moscow, thereby endangering New York and Chicago. The solution to this was to have American bases in the various European countries as tripwires that would encourage American involvement in a European war.

This thinking has continued for some in the former Soviet satellites and republics. So the bases were seen as tripwires for the now much less likely attack by the Russians.

But the folks who lived in the towns slated to host those installations were none too pleased about the idea that in case of Russian attack, their towns were first on the list.

So now President Obama and Secretary Gates are replacing those land bases with ships. This move also changes that narrative that President Bush muddled out, the conflation of a very nearly nonexistent Iranian threat with a Russian threat that is the subject of exaggerated fear in the former satellites and republics.

Reaction is mixed. Those who wanted the tripwire are disappointed and the issue has factored into continuing spiral of the Czech government. Mirek Toplanek invested significant political capital in supporting the US missile defense plan and was appointed caretaker Prime Minister by President Vaclav Klaus from August 2006. In March 2009 he received a vote of no confidence from the lower Czech Parliament while also serving as President of the European Union while the EU was ensconced in enhancing banking regulations and cracking down on tax havens. March of 2009 was the month when the parliament chose not to pursue parliamentary approval for the radar site because of overwhelming opposition. Toplanek resigned his position the following September after Klaus failed to get a snap election for October approved.

Polls stated that two-thirds of the Czech population did not want the radar site. Many believed the Czech Republic would not only be an early target by Russia, but were concerned about issues such as attacks on the Czech soil by terrorists and extremists, relations declining between the Czech and Russia government, and others worried about radiation from the system. The mayors and most local politicians in the municipalities where the base would be located spoke out against the plan. Despite being promised 1.25 billion crowns for their localities to host the base by the Toplanek government, they have seen only 13.5 million crowns up to this point.

The report from Estonia, via Postimees and Eesti Päevaleht, the two main papers, is simple: nothing so far. Across the Bay of Finland, Helsingin Sanomat has the same reaction.

The Czech reaction is more complicated. Top government officials were very supportive of putting in the radar base.

The current prime minister, Jan Fischer, is a caretaker appointed in May. Elections are being postponed from November until next year. Three-quarters of Czechs are unhappy with the current government, largely for economic reasons. Missile defense is not at the top of their concerns.

The former Foreign Minister, who signed the pact with the United States, Karel Schwartzenberg, sees the move as an attempt to placate Russia. The Defense Minister who signed the pact seems to be more indifferent.
"I saw (missile defense) only in the context of U.S. policy toward Iran and Central Asia. I expected something like this would come when I read that Turkey had begun talks with Iran, said Schwarzenberg. Washington hopes that the Russians, who are against the stationing of a missile defense system in the CR and Poland and strongly protested, now will see the Americans as "positive team players" and that Russia will help the Americans with Iran. [Molly’s translation.]
This article gives a much more mixed reaction, that local people were not consulted on the location of the radar, while national political parties called for a referendum and more discussion. And the mayors welcome Obama’s withdrawal of the proposal. They weren’t getting the subsidies the Czech government had promised them anyway.
After three years, it is very pleasant and the good news and see that we did not fight against this monster in vain, said one of the biggest opponents of the (project) Trokavec Mayor Jan Neoral. [Molly’s translation]

Obama Steps Closer to Rationality on Missile Defense

As was widely anticipated, President Obama has decided not to build the missile defense installations that President Bush had promised to Poland and the Czech Republic. The reason for that, Secretary Robert Gates said today, was a changed intelligence assessment and improved technology.

The intelligence assessment has upped the likely numbers of missiles in Iran and North Korea. The improved technology involves both radar and missiles. The alternative to the radar in the Czech Republic and missiles in Poland will be Aegis ships equipped with x-band radar and anti-missile missiles. This will be a more immediate solution to whatever problem exists; the land-based installations probably wouldn’t have been effective until 2017. It will also be more able to respond to changing threats. And it will be much less expensive: $13-15 million per missile as against $70 million per missile.

And it will be able to incorporate various national systems. Gates and his general said that the US is currently working with Israel to incorporate their system. He said that the radar in Azerbaijan offered early on by the Russians might be incorporated. There was also something about burden-sharing and how the Japanese are paying for part of their missile defense.

Saying that the change is because of changing intelligence and technology is a face-saver all around. Plus it has some truth in it.

But Gates is being less than totally clear, although he did mention the areas that would be protected by the various options. The difference is one that my friend the Armchair Generalist pointed out to me when I got a bit overexcited last week.

What the Aegis will provide is theater defense. With a lot more research and development, Gates and his general said, we can extend that area with new, to-be-developed missiles. As many of us have been saying all along, national missile defense still doesn’t work.

Theater defense may well be enough for Europe. But it’s not the enormous boondoggle that national missile defense represents.

Obama and Gates are playing a careful game. They are talking about missile defense without making the distinction between theater missile defense, which works, and national missile defense, which doesn’t. Let’s see if that shields them from the neoconservative incoming.

Mary? Oh Noes!

Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary Dies at 72.

A lot of the people who were already into adulthood when I was on the brink have been dying lately. Scarey, both for the reminder of the inevitable and that we are left without them.

The Times obituary I've linked is pretty good. Peter, Paul and Mary were indeed on the commercial edge of folk, but they had a nice sound and they did the right songs. I think I've still got all the vinyls.

In large part, today's America has come around to the way many of us thought it should be back then. Mary helped, along with Peter and Paul. Thanks and goodbye, Mary.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Medvedev and Biden

Back in July, Joe Biden was excoriated by the media and others for a "gaffe." Richard Pipes and others have kept up the complaint. Let's see what Biden said.
Russia has to make some very difficult, calculated decisions. They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they're in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.
I've been maintaining that making an observation like this can bring the relationship back to something like reality.

Let's see what President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia had to say last week.
The country faced vast social challenges, he said, including corruption, a feeble civil society, terrorism, alcoholism, and smoking. Russia was also in the grip of a poverty-fuelled insurgency across its North Caucasus, he added.

"An ineffective economy, a semi-Soviet social sphere, a weak democracy, negative demographic trends and an unstable Caucasus. These are very big problems even for a state like Russia," Medvedev wrote in his official blog.
Tsk, tsk. Even more criticism than Vice-President Joe Biden of the United States provided.

It's encouraging that Medvedev didn't blame the United States. In fact, "resentment, arrogance, various complexes, mistrust and especially hostility should be excluded from relations between Russia and the leading democratic countries."

Of course, there is no simple causal relationship between the two men's statements. But it's important to bring the discussion around to reality wherever possible. Although Russia can be quite sensitive to what it perceives as criticisms, it must face up to the genuine problems it faces if it is to be the country it would like to be. The critics would have left or pushed things toward a more grandiose picture of Russia. This one is better.

Further comments from Forbes and Paul Goble.

No Religion, No Character of Enmity

"As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."
- From the Treaty of Tripoli, ratified unanimously by the US Senate 7 Jun 1797 and signed by President John Adams 10 June 1797 (via a post by an FB friend).

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bits and Pieces - September 15, 2009

Logistics are still an enormous problem in Afghanistan.

The Federal Court of Appeals says that contractors in war zones are immune from prosecution. That should open up lots of possibilities for innovative warfare. What? Hmmmm? The Geneva Conventions?

Getting the neighboring countries involved in Afghanistan might actually have some good aspects. But there are issues of ethnicity, very complex in that region, not to mention some strange aspects of national self-interest, like relations with India, China and Russia.

Good News! Operation Rescue may be running out of money!

Pavel Podvig pretty much agrees with me on missile defense. But he says it more politely.

I hope Mohamed ElBaradei will keep speaking out even after he leaves office. Maybe particularly so then.

Soldiers on Steroids

Literally. Rodger Payne notes the unsurprisingly under-reported but surprisingly voluminous trade in steroids and other drugs to private contractors and US soldiers in Iraq. Rodger cites the American Council for Drug Education on one of the main side-effects in the short-term:
Use of steroids can increase muscle mass, strength, and endurance, but can also cause liver tumors, jaundice, water retention, and high blood pressure. Some users show bad judgment because the drugs make them feel invincible. Other users suffer from uncontrolled aggression and violent behavior called “Roid Rage”, severe mood swings, manic episodes and depression. They often suffer from paranoid jealousy, extreme irritability and can have delusions.


The Wege "getting meta in support of a point that needs to be made," slapping down the info.

Sound and Matter

Photo: Daniel Dendra of anOtherArchitect
Phron friend Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG finds an interesting new piece of furniture.
To produce this new tea table, Berlin-based designer Daniel Dendra of anOtherArchitect explains that he used sound recordings taken from the streets of Cairo to generate CNC-milling patterns... The acoustically-inspired topography fills the underside of the table, which meets flush and perfectly with the base (where Dendra has carved the exact opposite surface). It is the silence, so to speak, for the other surface's noise.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Resources on Water Resources

Photograph by Paul Damien
Today's NY Times has a useful series of articles and interactive graphs on one aspect of the large and multi-faceted problem of water.

A "permanent condition of apocalyptic excitation"

This review essay by Leon Wieseltier on liberal/conservative politics and Judaism is marvelous (via Sullivan). It also possesses the great merit of containing one of the finest book review put-downs I've seen in a long time: Wieseltier on the giving end, Norman Podhoretz's intellectual pomposity on the receiving end. A thing of beauty. Read the whole thing.
...Norman Podhoretz loves his people and loves his country, and I salute him for it, since I love the same people and the same country. But this is a dreary book. Its author has a completely axiomatic mind that is quite content to maintain itself in a permanent condition of apocalyptic excitation. His perspective is so settled, so confirmed, that it is a wonder he is not too bored to write. The veracity of everything he believes is so overwhelmingly obvious to him that he no longer troubles to argue for it. Instead there is only bewilderment that others do not see it, too. “Why Are Jews Liberals?” is a document of his bewilderment; and there is a Henry Higgins-­like poignancy to his discovery that his brethren are not more like himself. But the refusal of others to assent to his beliefs is portrayed by Podhoretz not as a principled disagreement that is worthy of respect, but as a human failing. Jews are liberals, he concludes, as a consequence of “willful blindness and denial.” He has a philosophy. They have a psychology.

“Why Are Jews Liberals?” is a potted history followed by a re-potted memoir. The first half of the book, which tells the story of “how the Jews became liberals,” is narrated in “the impersonal voice of a historian — an amateur, to be sure, but one who has relied on a variety of professional authorities for help and guidance.” These chapters are mainly anthologies of congenial quotations. There is something a little risible about the solemnity with which Podhoretz presents encyclopedia articles as evidence of his erudition (“I relied most heavily on one of the great works of 20th-century Jewish scholarship, the Encyclopaedia Judaica”); there is even a reference, slightly embarrassed, to Wikipedia. From his footnotes you would think that the most significant Jewish historian of our time is Paul Johnson. And there is a decidedly insular reliance upon the pages of Commentary, the magazine he edited for 35 years. His parochialism can be startling: Samuel ha-Nagid, the astounding poet, warrior, statesman and scholar in Granada in the 11th century, reminds him of Henry Kissinger! Podhoretz seems to be living the Vilna Gaon’s adage — maybe he can find it in some encyclopedia — that the best way for a man to preserve his purity is never to leave his house.