Sunday, September 30, 2007

Clementine Peel

Photo: Helmut

Iran-US Reading Assignment

Do us all a favor and read these pieces. Some excerpts below:

Seymour Hersh's "Shifting Targets: The Administration’s plan for Iran" in The New Yorker
...At a White House meeting with Cheney this summer, according to a former senior intelligence official, it was agreed that, if limited strikes on Iran were carried out, the Administration could fend off criticism by arguing that they were a defensive action to save soldiers in Iraq. If Democrats objected, the Administration could say, “Bill Clinton did the same thing; he conducted limited strikes in Afghanistan, the Sudan, and in Baghdad to protect American lives.” The former intelligence official added, “There is a desperate effort by Cheney et al. to bring military action to Iran as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the politicians are saying, ‘You can’t do it, because every Republican is going to be defeated, and we’re only one fact from going over the cliff in Iraq.’ But Cheney doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the Republican worries, and neither does the President.”...

A senior European diplomat, who works closely with American intelligence, told me that there is evidence that Iran has been making extensive preparation for an American bombing attack. “We know that the Iranians are strengthening their air-defense capabilities,” he said, “and we believe they will react asymmetrically—hitting targets in Europe and in Latin America.” There is also specific intelligence suggesting that Iran will be aided in these attacks by Hezbollah. “Hezbollah is capable, and they can do it,” the diplomat said...

The revised bombing plan for a possible attack, with its tightened focus on counterterrorism, is gathering support among generals and admirals in the Pentagon. The strategy calls for the use of sea-launched cruise missiles and more precisely targeted ground attacks and bombing strikes, including plans to destroy the most important Revolutionary Guard training camps, supply depots, and command and control facilities...

A limited bombing attack of this sort “only makes sense if the intelligence is good,” the consultant said. If the targets are not clearly defined, the bombing “will start as limited, but then there will be an ‘escalation special.’ Planners will say that we have to deal with Hezbollah here and Syria there. The goal will be to hit the cue ball one time and have all the balls go in the pocket. But add-ons are always there in strike planning.”
'The President Has Accepted Ethnic Cleansing' Interview with Seymour Hersh in Der Spiegel
...Hersh: The Surge means basically that, in some way, the president has accepted ethnic cleansing, whether he's talking about it or not. When he first announced the Surge in January, he described it as a way to bring the parties together. He's not saying that any more. I think he now understands that ethnic cleansing is what is going to happen. You're going to have a Kurdistan. You're going to have a Sunni area that we're going to have to support forever. And you're going to have the Shiites in the South.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So the US is over four years into a war that is likely going to end in a disaster. How valid are the comparisons with Vietnam?

Hersh: The validity is that the US is fighting a guerrilla war and doesn't know the culture. But the difference is that at a certain point, because of Congressional and public opposition, the Vietnam War was no longer tenable. But these guys now don't care. They see it but they don't care.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: If the Iraq war does end up as a defeat for the US, will it leave as deep a wound as the Vietnam War did?

Hersh: Much worse. Vietnam was a tactical mistake. This is strategic. How do you repair damages with whole cultures? On the home front, though, we'll rationalize it away. Don't worry about that. Again, there's no learning curve. No learning curve at all. We'll be ready to fight another stupid war in another two decades....

And Tony Karon, writing at Rootless Cosmopolitan:

...I tend to agree, though, with the assessment of Steve Clemons that the Cheney/berserk position won’t necessarily prevail — but that the posturing and rhetoric from Washington could force the U.S. into an “accidental” war (a prospect that the berserkers have actually been trying to engineer). Its domestic and internal political shape — besides the neocons around Cheney, there’s also the AIPAC warning Capitol Hill that any legislators seeking to restrain the White House from military action against Iran will henceforth be treated as anti-Semites — certainly appears to be dissuading the Administration from sending any signals to Tehran making clear that Washington has no aggressive intent. Indeed, based on what they’re hearing from Washington, the Iranians might well assume that confrontation is inevitable.

The key to avoiding a confrontation may be the U.S. military, whose opposition to such a catastrophic blunder remains steadfast. The problem, though, is that the Bush Administration has painted itself into a corner by defining a “diplomatic solution” as simply an Iranian surrender to U.S. terms on the issue of uranium enrichment. But there’s little chance of that — which may help explain the rather cynical French hysteria — nor of any new sanctions any time soon, since Iran is cooperating with the IAEA to address outstanding concerns. That’s going to leave the Cheney berserkers, and the Israeli politicians scrambling to outdo each other in satisfying the public’s expectation of action, entering 2008 with no sign that diplomacy is going to produce the only outcome short of war that they’re prepared to countenance.
Finally, also, Arthur Silber (via Wolcott): of the standard objections to the likelihood of an attack on Iran is that it will put American troops in Iraq in grave peril. If you make that objection, I have only one thing to say to you: Wake the hell up. Of course it will put American troops in Iraq in grave peril. A great many of them will probably be killed. But -- and please try as earnestly as you can to get this -- the administration is counting on exactly that happening. [Added, to clarify: this must be true, given the logic of the situation, at least implicitly. In individual cases, it might also be true explicitly, in the sense that a particular person is consciously aware of what must happen.] I'm sorry to be rude, but honest to God, how stupid are some of you? Imagine that 500, or a thousand, or even several thousand, American soldiers are killed in a single engagement, or over several days or a week. What do you think would happen?

The administration would immediately blame "Iranian interference" and "Iranian meddling." They do that now. Every major media outlet would repeat the charge; almost no one would question it. Pictures of the slaughtered Americans would be played on television 24 hours a day. The outrage would grow by the minute. Within a day, and probably within hours, certain parties would be calling for nuclear weapons to be dropped on Tehran. Almost everyone would be baying for blood, and for the blood of Iran in particular....


Photo: Helmut

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at Columbia

Exporter Importer (via A Tiny Revolution):
The same day that Iranian despot Mahmoud Ahmadenijad was widely protested while speaking at Columbia University, Turkmen despot Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov was widely ignored while speaking at the very same Columbia University. The New York Times (which didn't attend Berdymukhammedov's speech) reports that Radio Free Europe was the only English-language media at the speech.

The NGO Freedom House gives Iran a political rights score of six, a civil rights score of six and the status of "not free." Turkmenistan gets scores of seven, seven and "not free." So why all the protesters at Ahmadinejad's speech, but nary a peep about Berdymukhammedov? Could it be because no one is agitating for war with Turkmenistan, like they are with Iran?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Friday Dinner Party Conversation Stopper

All things are far -- and nowhere does the circle close.
Look at the fish, served up on the gaily set table:
how peculiar its face on the dish.

- Rilke, The Sonnets to Orpheus, XX

Noncombatant Immunity, Blackwater, and the State Department

I teach a graduate seminar on normative analysis in public policy; basically, an ethics and political philosophy course with a heavy "applied" element. Yesterday, we discussed just war theory and, among other cases, the massacre at My Lai was a topic of discussion. One issue raised to provide historical context was that the American soldiers who committed the atrocities at My Lai had previously been under heavy fire and were terribly war-worn. This element fit into that part of just war doctrine called the principle of "non-combatant immunity." According to this principle, innocent civilians can never be an intentional target of military forces. The principle has its root in the pragmatic consideration underlying all of just war doctrine: that, even if wars are a necessary evil, it is in everyone's interests to seek to avoid mass carnage. Wars are to be fought solely between combatants. This is why terrorism is thought to be a great evil - it is by definition the intentional killing of innocents. Wars, however, always kill innocents and thus the question for moral thinkers in a context of war becomes one of how we interpret and act upon the principle of noncombatant immunity when there are cases in which striking an important military target also eventuates in killing civilians.

There are a variety of arguments regarding the principle, which are not necessary to go into here, but two contrasting views are 1) the view that killing civilians is acceptable if to do otherwise would put soldiers at greater risk, and 2) Michael Walzer's view that the principle is only meaningful if a military force actively puts itself at risk to avoid civilian casualties. But international law and the ethics of war generally treat the intentional killing of civilians - and even an unintentional but strong likelihood of killing innocents - as murder, rather than simply an unfortunate consequence of war. This is what makes the My Lai atrocity a case of mass murder.

The consideration that the soldiers at My Lai were war-weary and skittish is often raised as a mitigating factor in how we judge the murders. For instance, we might think that stealing is wrong, but we can make distinctions between someone who steals fruit because his children are starving and someone who steals someone else's life-savings because he wants to fill his house with wide-screen televisions. Although both cases would be murder, we might also make distinctions between a wife who kills her abusive husband and someone who kills another for their wallet. Mitigating circumstances are important in judging a case in moral and legal terms. While a case such as My Lai is clearly murder on pretty much any coherent legal or moral account, we may nonetheless consider whether there are mitigating factors and whether the soldiers' weariness, anger, and fear are indeed such factors in how they are judged and what punishments they face. I'm not saying that these actually are mitigating factors (or that there are any possible in a case like My Lai), but that they have often been raised as potentially mitigating factors (perhaps especially by those who seek to avoid political fallout).

In the Iraq War, the government defense of soldiers who have committed crimes in Iraq (murder, rape, torture, etc.) almost always includes the allegedly mitigating factor of, essentially, the soldier(s) being in a tense, stressful war zone. This, on its own right, makes a mockery of the principle of noncombatant immunity. Noncombatant immunity is a principle in the conduct of war (jus in bello). The war comes first, not as an afterthought, and wars are quite obviously tense. In the case of the massacres at My Lai or at Haditha, the fact of being in a war-zone is, in a rather austere sense, irrelevant as a mitigating factor.

Blackwater mercenaries are not official combatants; they're members of a private company contracted by the US government (Blackwater, however, might not even be under contract - something to look into here, press). But I think we can treat them as regular combatants for purposes of moral arguments since they are employed to do the job of combatants. It's still perplexing to me why they should be employed at all to do jobs that the military could do, but there they are functioning largely in a military capacity as government-hired mercenaries.

Blackwater has a history of committing murders in Iraq, but the issue has only come to public consciousness with the September 19th killings at Nisour Square in Baghdad. Here's one description of the previous, September 9th case that has since come to light.
On Sept. 9, the day before Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told Congress that things were getting better, Batoul Mohammed Ali Hussein came to Baghdad for the day.

A clerk in the Iraqi customs office in Diyala province, she was in the capital to drop off and pick up paperwork at the central office near busy al Khilani Square, not far from the fortified Green Zone, where top U.S. and Iraqi officials live and work. U.S. officials often pass through the square in heavily guarded convoys on their way to other parts of Baghdad.

As Hussein walked out of the customs building, an embassy convoy of sport-utility vehicles drove through the intersection. Blackwater security guards, charged with protecting the diplomats, yelled at construction workers at an unfinished building to move back. Instead, the workers threw rocks. The guards, witnesses said, responded with gunfire, spraying the intersection with bullets.

Hussein, who was on the opposite side of the street from the construction site, fell to the ground, shot in the leg. As she struggled to her feet and took a step, eyewitnesses said, a Blackwater security guard trained his weapon on her and shot her multiple times. She died on the spot, and the customs documents she'd held in her arms fluttered down the street.

And here's one from February 2nd.

Habib Sadr, the network's director general, said the three guards, members of Iraq's Facilities Protection Service, were at their post at the back of the complex. A towering blast wall was a short distance in front of them to protect the compound from Haifa Street, which is notorious for car bombings and drive-by shootings.

According to Sadr and Interior Ministry officials, the three were picked off one by one by Blackwater snipers stationed on the roof of the 10-story Justice Ministry about 220 yards away on the opposite side of the street.

Nibras Mohammed Dawood was shot first as he stood in a sand-bagged guard post. Azhar Abdullah Ali was shot when he ran to help. Sabah Salman Hassoun was shot when he, too, tried to aid his wounded colleagues. All were between the ages of 20 and 25, Sadr said.

They multiply....

Yet, the State Department has defended Blackwater. They have said that they need Blackwater's services to keep State employees in Iraq safe. Fine, although as I mentioned above, we still don't have good reasons why the actual military couldn't take on this role. But these Blackwater cases and others like them are nothing but murder. There is a pattern and until the shootings at Nisour Square, this pattern was not public (as in American public, not Iraqi public) and the State Department apparently had little inclination to make these cases public or punish or even criticize Blackwater. Does the State Department officially condone the murder of innocents in the name of its own safety? It seems so, and the recent pattern of justification is eerily familiar.
The two-page [embassy] report, described by a State Department official as a "first blush" account from the scene, raises new questions about what transpired in the intersection. According to the report, the events that led to the shooting involved three Blackwater units. One of them was ambushed near the traffic circle and returned fire before fleeing the scene, the report said. Another unit that went to the intersection was then surrounded by Iraqis and had to be extricated by the U.S. military, it added...

Witnesses and the Iraqi government have insisted that the shooting by the private guards was unprovoked. Blackwater has claimed that its guards returned fire only after they were shot at. The document makes no reference to civilian casualties. Eleven Iraqi civilians were killed and 12 wounded in the incident. The report said Blackwater sustained no casualties...

The report, which is designated sensitive but unclassified, differs significantly from the account of the Iraqi Interior Ministry and several witnesses interviewed at the scene. According to those accounts, the Blackwater guards moved into the traffic circle in a convoy of armored vehicles, halting traffic and then firing on a white sedan that had failed to slow down as it entered the area. The car burst into flames, killing the occupants, according to these accounts. The Blackwater team then unleashed a barrage of fire into the surrounding area as people tried to flee in the pandemonium.

Sarhan Thiab, a traffic policeman who was in the circle at the time, said Iraqi police did not fire on Blackwater. "Not a single bullet. They were the only ones shooting," said Thiab, who said he and other traffic officers fled to nearby bushes once the shooting began.

"All the vehicles were shooting. They were shooting in every direction," said a senior Iraqi police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigations. "They used a rocket launcher or grenade launcher to hit the car. They were supported by two helicopters who were shooting from the air."...

Condoleeza Rice has ordered an investigation. That is, of course, a necessary step. But she and other State Department officials have also repeatedly defended Blackwater since the September 19th violence. One central problem for Rice is that this is simply a well-publicized account of one instance in a pattern of violence which has been allowed to continue. Not until political damage became possible did Rice act, and the first action was to control the information flow to the media and the public. And now the story begins to turn into one of "bedlam" at the scene framed as if "bedlam" in a fundamentally anarchic war-zone is a mitigating factor in Blackwater's murder of innocent civilians.

Employees of this company, in the service of the US government and thus ostensibly the American people, have killed innocents in situations which cannot be defended by appealing to even the most flexible exceptions to the principle of noncombatant immunity. As such, they can only be treated as murderers. It would be wise for State to acknowledge this as soon as possible.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


$1 Billion vs. $1.2 Trillion

Here's one important bit of new information revealed by the El Pais transcript.

Saddam Hussein offered to step down and go into exile one month before the invasion of Iraq, it was claimed last night.

Fearing defeat, Saddam was prepared to go peacefully in return for £500million ($1billion).

The extraordinary offer was revealed yesterday in a transcript of talks in February 2003 between George Bush and the then Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar at the President's Texas ranch.

Seas and Genes

Two brief articles from Nature worth your while.

Why a person doesn't evolve in one lifetime
...mutant cells that don't do their specialized job so well tend to replicate more quickly than non-mutants, and so gain a competitive advantage, freeloading off the others. In such a case, our wonderfully wrought bodies could grind to a halt...

To renew themselves, epithelial tissues retain a population of undifferentiated stem cells, like the unformed cells present in embryos, that have the ability to grow into different types of cells. When replacements are needed, some of these stem cells divide to make transient amplifying cells (TACs). The TACs then divide several times, and Pepper and his co-workers think that each division produces cells that are a little more developed into mature tissue cells.

All this costs a lot of metabolic energy, so it is not very efficient. But, the researchers say, it means that the functions of self-replication and proliferation are divided between separate groups of cells. The stem cells replicate, but only a little, and so there's not much chance for mutations to arise or for selective pressure to fix them in place. The proliferating TACS may mutate, but they aren't simply copying themselves, so there isn't any direct competition between the cells to create an evolutionary pressure. As a result, evolution can't get started.

Mixing the oceans proposed to reduce global warming
In a letter to the editor published in Nature this week1, James Lovelock and Chris Rapley suggest that this deus ex machina could be an "emergency treatment for the pathology of global warming". Large vertical pipes could, they say, be used to mix nutrient-rich waters from hundreds of metres down with the more barren waters at the surface. This could cause algal blooms at the surface, which would consume carbon dioxide (CO2) through photosynthesis. When the algae die, some of this carbon could sink into deep waters. The algae may also produce chemicals that spur cloud formation, further cooling the planet.

Ian Hacking on Creationism

Philosopher of science, Ian Hacking, discusses anti-Darwinism vs. the defenders of evolutionary theory in The Nation. It's a refreshing piece. Although my own thinking in philosophy is heavily influenced by evolution, I avoid the so-called debate between Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. and anti-evolutionists and creationists. The debate is shrill on all sides, idiotic in some cases, and generally pointless. Of course, as I've noted elsewhere (and here and here and here), intelligent design theory is bunk. Not only is it bunk, but it's regurgitative. Much of it involves hashing over the same old debates and positions that have played out since the Middle Ages. The debate requires one either to be ignorant of those arguments before even setting out or to simply ignore them. In either case, the debate is pointless. The only place it is not is when nonsensical views are impressed upon school districts. Rather than, like Hitchens, trying to argue that all religion is ridiculous, efforts ought to be directed towards saving children from the quackery of intelligent design as a scientific theory.

Brazil vs. Germany

The Women's World Cup comes down to something we're used to: Germany vs. Brazil in a final. Germany yesterday disposed of a pesky Norwegian team, and Brazil today clobbered the US, 4-0, the US women's worst loss ever.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

La Franqueza

Josh Marshall & Co. direct us to El Pais, which has posted the full leaked transcript of the March 2003 meeting in Crawford between Bush and former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion. Bush apparently took the occasion to tell Aznar that the whole invasion of Iraq thing was a sham.

My reading Spanish is slow and I have class to teach early in the morning. I'll leave it to you for now to tease out the discoveries.

William Faulkner

Today is the great William Faulkner's birthday. Born on this date in 1897, he died in 1962.

Years ago, I was browsing an antique store in the small Texas town of Bryan. I have an interest in rare books and first editions. Antique stores are sometimes good places to find them because their books are often priced for a general market based on the factor of being old, rather than priced for the specialized market of the rare books world. In the Texas antique store, I came across a first edition of Nobel laureate Faulkner's late novel A Fable. I bought it for a dollar or two and was pleased with the find - Faulkner is one of my favorite American writers.

After buying it along with some other books I noticed that the letter in it, which I had taken to be a simple bookmark, was postmarked from Oxford, Mississippi. June 25th, 1956. Faulkner was raised in Oxford and made it his home town until the end of his life (Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County).

I opened the envelope and read the letter (below). The letter itself, dated June 20th, is mostly rather banal. One Mrs. Owens (I don't know who she is/was) writes to Faulkner asking for the source of the quote, "...but that was in another country; and besides, the wench is dead." The quote itself is fairly famous, at least for its influence on other writers, and is worth examining in its own right for its embedded moral claim about moral boundaries.

The offense omitted from the letter by Mrs. Owens, however, the one taking place in "another country" and excused by the wench being dead, is fornication. The attribution of the quote has been haunting Mrs. Owens for three years, she says. Having found it used again in A Fable, she has screwed up the courage to write to Faulkner.

The next two paragraphs of the letter then apologize for writing him, and thank him for his work. Mrs. Owens ends with, "It's hard to be a good Christian and a good Southerner at the same time, isn't it?"

A mostly banal letter, but curious for its two questions. What does the last question mean? Is she referring to racism in the South? This seems obvious. She refers to Faulkner's essay in Harper's. This would be the piece, "On Fear: The South in Labor," published in the June 1956 issue, which deals with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954, and fear of segregation, including his own self-examined melancholy at the death of the Old South.

What of the "another country" quote? Mrs. Owens' interest allows for more salacious interpretations. Is she pining after a furtive, impossible love, imagining a justification for what remains a fantasy? Does she feel guilt for some actual sexual transgression? Is she a traveler who prefers to leave some memories abroad? Is she a budding ethicist concerned about the arbitrary national boundaries of justice?

For me, of course, an admirer of Faulkner's writing, the exciting part of the letter was the author of the answer to the source of the quote. In Faulkner's hand, a hand that touched this page over 50 years ago, he tersely responds to Mrs. Owens, "C. Marlowe's Jew of Malta. W.F."

Monday, September 24, 2007

Sunday, September 23, 2007

New Climate Deal via the Montreal Protocol

I've been following the deliberations at Montreal on this. More soon as I suss out the details a bit.

UPDATE (24 September):

Here is the public summary of the 19th Meeting of the Parties of the Montreal Protocol from the Environmental Bulletin, a subscription newsletter I receive on international environmental negotiations. You can find more here.

With almost 95% of ODS successfully eliminated under the Montreal Protocol, many believe the Protocol is ready and able to take on new challenges. The Multilateral Fund has long been recognized as a flexible, responsive financial mechanism, key to the successful implementation of the Montreal Protocol. Among other things, the Fund is mandated to provide finance for the transition from CFCs to HCFCs. Some pragmatic observers feared that if the Fund was not mandated to finance a new challenge, such as the phase out of HCFCs, it would run the risk of not being replenished, or being merged into the GEF. Some parties suggested that the Montreal Protocol should explore synergies with the chemicals conventions, and many speculated this could lead to the Fund being tapped by other related Conventions.

Six years ago, when it was observed that the production and consumption of HCFCs in India and China mirrored that of CFCs historically, and when the idea of accelerated phase-out was first raised, it met with strong opposition from developing countries. At MOP-19, what took most delegates by surprise was how quickly events unfolded. Various factors were conducive to a convergence of views at MOP-19. China, the biggest country producer of HCFCs and main opponent of accelerated phase-out, showed more flexibility than some expected, and secured commitments on funding and access to alternatives in return. The Russian Federation also noted the difficultly of meeting an accelerated phase-out schedule, particularly because it is not eligible for support from the Multilateral Fund, but did not actively oppose the acceleration. Industrialized countries stressed the high global warming potential of HCFCs and the climate benefits of their elimination. The US displayed particular enthusiasm for taking climate-related action outside of the climate regime. According to some, their delegation had “marching orders” to bring climate into the ozone process before the upcoming high-level meetings in Washington and New York on climate change. More skeptical observers suggested that the agreement may also serve to draw attention away from the UNFCCC.

With incentives for action in place on all sides of the negotiating table, an agreement on the acceleration of the HCFC phase-out took “center stage” – albeit behind closed doors. The contact group met throughout the week and most delegates remained tight-lipped about the details until the entire package was agreed. The decision accelerates the phase-out of HCFC production and consumption by a full decade, moving the commitment for phase-out by Article 2 parties from 2030 to 2020, and for Article 5 parties from 2040 to 2030. While the significance of the deal was celebrated by most delegates, China, as one of the parties most affected by the agreement, voiced caution and noted that success is contingent on the availability of alternatives that are ozone and climate friendly, safe and economically viable. Environmental NGOs also repeatedly pointed out the need to ensure that HCFCs are not replaced by substances with high global warming potential or other environmental risks.

An agreement on HCFCs was therefore timely and served several interests. Many developing country delegates saw new policy commitments on HCFCs as a way to ensure continued availability of funding to Article 5 parties. Industrialized countries saw an agreement on accelerated phase-out of HCFC as an easy win for climate, through action by both developed and developing countries. According to some delegates, the Montreal Protocol commitments for an accelerated phase out of HCFCs will actually serve to address climate change more than ozone depletion. Some statistics indicate that the HCFC phase-out could result in reductions of between 18 and 30 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions, which is up to five times the reductions under the Kyoto Protocol in its first commitment period.

Myanmar Protests

Photo: European Press Photo Agency

I agree with Laura Bush. Myanmar should be pressed hard right now by the UN and global powers. The Burmese pro-democracy movement has some 10,000 monks now protesting in the streets. This could be momentous. It could be tragic. The difference may very well be made at this point by international pressure.

A Comment on US War Epistemology

Another piece on the Bush administration's efforts to find reasons for conducting wars: Cheney may have mulled Israeli pretext for U.S. attack on Iran. Sure, I have no doubt he has.

But note the epistemology here. It has been the same throughout Bush administration foreign and domestic policy. It goes like this: there is a fixed, a priori idea of a policy venture; the policymaker then goes around looking for reasons to subscribe to that pre-fixed idea; "good" reasons are largely intended as fodder for formulating a public justification for the initial policy idea and this guides the search for reasons; the more reasons accumulated (whether consistent with each other or not), the more rhetorical ammunition the policymaker has in making the public justification.

Here's the rub, moving backwards through this "methodology." More justifications do not necessarily mean good justifications. This is crude quantity over quality logic. It may serve as a way to confuse the public and the media and thus put the policymaker in the position of at least obscuring what he really wants to do. It serves to give the appearance that the policymaker is being publicly transparent by tossing lots of justifications, facts, data, at the public. And it may serve to have a set of public back-up reasons when one individual justification or another fails (it wasn't WMDs; it was democracy, etc.). But it also has little to do with good reasons for a policy. Why? Because good policy is a response to a problem perceived as such by a well-informed public. Much of public and foreign policy fails at this, but Bush administration policy seems to have very little to do with good policy in the first place. This quantity methodology has to do with political salesmanship for goods that the administration, not necessarily the public, views as goods.

What is being sold? This brings us into the initial step. This is the question for which I don't think we have a good answer, at least not in the case of the Iraq invasion and occupation. Of course, massive incompetence is always a possible explanation, but the lead-up arguments and deceit for the Iraq War were so carefully and expertly managed that I hesitate to take the easy way out by concluding that the chaos is all a result of incompetence. I don't doubt incompetence in some of the details of policies and even perhaps in their overall conceptualizations, and I don't doubt the limits to which a basic arrogance and sense of regal infallibility blinds members of the administration even to the obvious reality of failed policies. But this nevertheless suggests that the answer still runs to the epistemological issue here.

The important element of the initial step, however, is perhaps two-sided: either the original, a priori policy idea is generated through vague ideology-driven intuition or it has reasons that the administration wishes not to make public. Genuine critics of the actual policies - those who are trying to understand the reasoning behind the policies - often come up empty with this administration. Again, much of this has to do with the actual lack of transparency and the apparent secrecy fetish which, during the administration's halcyon days, the administration was not even at pains to conceal (concealing a lack of transparency by appearing transparent is a brilliant Machiavellian political trick - Rove was good at it from time to time). The latter version, then, of the a priori policy idea as based on secret reasons indicates fundamentally undemocratic practice. This is especially the case when the consequences of these policies in action are so dramatically negative for nearly everyone except those close to the administration.

How about what I called a "vague ideology-driven intuition"? First, don't put too much in store by the term "ideology." This is a shifty term with a history of academic disputes behind it. Further, we all have our own ideologies, if we mean by this something along the lines of unquestioned habits of thought and belief. This is a basic epistemological matter. At some level, we can't go around re-evaluating wholesale all of our beliefs. We use most of them like "black boxes" - they serve certain purposes and are only thrown into disarray when seriously challenged by new circumstances. In the case of the administration, when a policymaker is "standing on principle" or "unwavering," and so on, that's usually less an indication of deliberative reasoning on sound principles than it is promoting one's particular intuitions to the status of universality and then refuse to examine them for fear of inadequacy.

If we grant, however, that the process of policy reasoning is to be taken at face value, as in the steps I described above, then the epistemological question is, I think, this: US policy in this administration is driven by a kind of quasi-reasoning common to unreflective religious thought, authoritarians, and some forms of orthodox policy analysis. It begins with unquestioned ideology or doctrine and then seeks to act on it regardless of evidence contradicting the doctrine. In the face of surprising evidence, it doesn't attempt to revise doctrine, it attempts, rather, to adapt contradictory evidence into its doctrinal scheme (often by appeal to the threat of outside forces, which then justifies anything), and one way it does this is by rewriting the understanding of that surprising reality rather than dealing with it directly. Note that this has little to do with publicly perceived problems except to the extent that the public is either benighted or are fellow travelers.

Epistemologically, this is tantamount to taking the status quo ante as "natural" (and in this case, with the neocons, as the exclusive domain of the anointed). It looks to the doctrine to explain reality and how one ought to act on that reality, irregardless of the consequences of those actions. When real circumstances throw into doubt the doctrine, the doctrine itself is not questioned; the reality itself is questioned. Rather than seeking imaginative solutions by examining various possible outcomes of a policy and trying at least tentatively the option that might best resolve the policy problem without giving up other important values, solutions are only defined as such to the extent that they conform with and serve to reconfirm doctrine and the status quo ante. The doctrine itself is not a product of public deliberation, important in any policy issue, but a questionable ideology which, if clarified for the public and put up for public deliberation, may have very little support. Thus, much of the solution-finding is simply geared towards maintaining the exclusivity of the doctrine.

This is a major part of the problem we've been facing and continue to face. It's not merely a matter of ideological differences or of incompetence. It's a matter of the disastrous end (an end, one hopes) of a common yet specious approach to policy that is anathema to democracy. This end doesn't spell disaster for democracy, however. Rather, it confirms (tragically) the importance of further democracy in our institutions, policymaking, and collective problem-solving.

Women's World Cup Update

As usual, the Women's World Cup - held this year in China - receives a tiny fraction of the coverage of the men's World Cup. The former may not have the same level of excitement, but the matches have progressively gotten get better and better over the years.

Above is the bracket for the semifinals, decided earlier today and yesterday. The US and Germany won yesterday on big efforts by both teams. They look like the two teams for the final, especially after today's Brazil-Australia match. Brazil dominated Oz, and have looked great all tournament, but came away with only a 3-2 victory. Australia is no longer a pushover, but they're also not yet one of the elite teams. Norway squeaked by China, who otherwise dominated their match but couldn't put the ball in the back of the net.

I can't see Norway presenting much of a challenge for Germany. Norway's defense may keep Germany's goal-count low, but look for that match to be mastered entirely by the Germans.

Brazil-US will be the match to watch. Both teams have some of the more exciting strikers and ball-handlers in the game (perhaps the two most exciting players in Brazil's Marta and the US' Abby Wambach), and both teams are capable of terrific defense. The US, on the other hand, has the worst supporters' chant.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Passion Fruit

Blackwater and State

Iraq's Interior Ministry has expanded its investigation into incidents involving Blackwater USA security guards amid the furor following a shooting that claimed at least 11 lives, a ministry spokesman said Saturday.

Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said the Moyock, N.C.-based company has been implicated in six other incidents over the past seven months, including a Feb. 7 shooting outside Iraqi state television in Baghdad in which three building guards were fatally shot.

Khalaf said other incidents include: a Sept. 9 shooting in front of Baghdad's municipal government building that killed five people and wounded 10; a Sept. 12 shooting that wounded five on the capital's Palestine Street; a Feb. 4 shooting near the Foreign Ministry, in which Iraqi journalist Hana al-Ameedi died; a May shooting near the Interior Ministry that claimed the life of a passer-by and a Feb. 14 incident in which Blackwater employees allegedly smashed windshields by throwing bottles of ice water at cars.

"These six cases will support the case against Blackwater, because they show that it has a criminal record," Khalaf told The Associated Press.

Pat Lang:

The resumption of State Department use of Blackwater protection answers the question as to whether or not there is any reality to the sovereignty of the Iraqi government. Maliki declared Blackwater's business license to be suspended and ordered the company out of Iraq. The US Government has defied that decision. The egregious Rice has now declared that the situation will be reviewed. What a joke. Whatever credit the Iraqi government may have had in the Arab World is now finished.

"Who is going to run this place, (Iraq) us or them?" This question was foolishly asked this week by a popular American TV talk show host. His question picked at the scab of underlying American attitudes toward Iraq.

So much for purple fingers.
Steve Benen:

What could make this week worse for Blackwater? If shooting Iraqi civilians and facing deportation pressure from the Maliki government weren't quite enough, there's also the looming investigation into illicit arms smuggling.

Federal prosecutors are investigating allegations that employees of Blackwater -- the security firm accused of shooting dead up to 20 Iraqi civilians -- illegally smuggled weapons into Iraq, according to U.S. government sources. [...]

One U.S. government official said the U.S. attorney's office in Raleigh, North Carolina, is in the early stages of an investigation that so far focuses on individual Blackwater employees and not the company.

The AP report added that the alleged smuggled arms from Blackwater employees "may have been sold on the black market and ended up in the hands of a U.S.-designated terrorist organization."

Blackwater's other problems, meanwhile, continue to worsen.

Iraq's Interior Ministry has expanded its investigation into incidents involving Blackwater USA security guards amid the furor following a shooting that claimed at least 11 lives, a ministry spokesman said Saturday.

Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said the Moyock, N.C.-based company has been implicated in six other incidents over the past seven months, including a Feb. 7 shooting outside Iraqi state television in Baghdad in which three building guards were fatally shot.

One wonders where all of this could go, or whether it's a moot point. After a few days of inactivity, Blackwater went back to work yesterday, and the "sovereign" Iraqi government grudgingly acknowledges that it can't kick Blackwater out of the country.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Friday Dinner Party Conversation Stopper

Every superstitious custom that originated on the basis of some misinterpreted accident involves a tradition that it is moral to follow.

- Nietzsche: Seventy-Five Aphorisms / Human All Too Human, 96. (Via CBA)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Talking With Iran

I noted some time ago that Iran, contrary to the US administration's apparent perceptions (and, thus, unfortunately, the US public's), tends to operate in rather rational ways in the international sphere. In other words, they act vis-à-vis other nations as would be reasonably expected of most any country in their position. The US administration's and the neocons' insistence on portraying Iran's leaders as crazies clouds the necessary reality of dealing with Iran through dialogue rather than violence.

As I thought was pretty clear during the run-up to the Iraq War, it simply does not make sense to rattle sabers at this point regarding Iran. One might think, in a moment of cynical optimism, that aggressive noises emanating from the US administration are simply strategic - to set negotiations on a footing favorable to the US. But one could be forgiven for thinking the same regarding Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and look where that got us. Otherwise, one might be forgiven for thinking that it is, rather, the US administration that is irrational, not Iran. Tony Karon:

By invading Iraq, the U.S. irreversibly altered the balance of power throughout the Middle East; now, Iraq cannot be treated as a policy decision in isolation from the full spectrum of U.S. interests throughout the region — all of which will be calamitously weakened if the U.S. were to precipitously retreat. While the congressional discussion focused on the failure to achieve consensus among Iraq politicians, it may be that the absence of a consensus on Iraq between the U.S. and Iraq’s neighbors is even more dangerous. Given the weakness of the central government in Iraq, stability there is unlikely without an agreement among Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Iran over managing the political contest there. The most powerful stakeholder among them is Iran, which has close ties to the dominant political parties returned by the Iraqi electorate. And as long as Iran believes the U.S. is pursuing a policy of regime-change in Tehran, it has little incentive to help out Washington.

The latter point, really is the key to understanding the current quagmire. The idea of reaching out to Iran has become conventional wisdom in Washington diplomatic circles since the Iraq Study Group report, but it has only been grasped in a facile bound-to-fail sense. So Ambassador Crocker testified that he had talked to Iran on a number of occasions about ending their subversive activities, but to no avail. And this is largely accepted by the liberal hawk camp, while the neocons say told you so.

But if the U.S. is serious about resolving differences with Iran, the agenda of talks would have to be infinitely wider than “subversion” in Iran. Only talks that address and find a mechanism for settling or managing the fundamental strategic conflicts between Washington and Tehran — from U.S. regime-change policies to Iran’s nuclear program and regional activities — can change the course of the relationship. Iran has previously sought such talks with the Bush Administration, but has been rebuffed. As former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami argues, Iran’s regime has proven itself to be pragmatic, and “the grand bargain remains the only way out of the impasse.”...

Moreover, the Iranians see the recent U.S. shift away from the Iraqi government and towards Sunni insurgent groups in Anbar as evidence of a U.S. agenda which now explicitly cites “containing Iran” as the strategic purpose of staying in Iraq. Still, if the U.S. is planning an attack, the Iranians need the U.S. to remain in Iraq.

After all, when Iran retaliates for whatever Bush throws at them, the Iranians are likely to target U.S. forces in Iraq, cutting off their supply lines in Baghdad and targeting them via guerrilla forces in Iraq and medium range rocket attacks. Iran, for purposes of its asymmetrical response to any attack by the U.S. needs plenty of Americans within reach of its capabilities.

And its own survival is a far greater concern for the Iranian regime than the future of Iraq.

There lies the rub: The U.S. cannot stabilize Iraq without cooperation from Iran; the price of such cooperation is normalizing relations with the Tehran regime; the Bush Administration has no intention of doing that, clinging instead to fantasies of regime-change; Iraq remains a nightmare....

But, once again, here's our problem:
If the U.S. is stupid enough to imagine that a military attack will diminish the threat from Iran, the situation in Iraq will likely get a whole lot worse than it is right now. President Bush made no bones about the fact that Iraq is a mess he plans to hand off to his successor. But if he opts to go out in a blaze of, uh, “glory” by bombing Iran, the mess he leaves in the lap of the next president will have metastasized considerably.


David Kurtz at TPM:
Correct me if I'm wrong here. But by my calculation, more U.S. senators (72) voted today to condemn a newspaper ad attacking Gen. Petraeus than voted yesterday (56) to lengthen the time off troops get from the frontlines in Iraq, thereby reducing individual soldiers exposure to actual attacks. Am I missing something, or is that about right?

Satellite Police

Lindsay, writing at In These Times:

On August 15, the Wall Street Journal broke the news that America’s senior intelligence authorities were preparing to vastly expand access to classified satellite reconnaissance and other remote sensing data.

Initially, the National Applications Office (NAO), a newly created office within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), will confine itself to homeland security and traditional civil applications. Officials will be able to request satellite data to enhance border security, defend critical infrastructure and coordinate disaster response. Next year, the department plans to give satellite data to state and local law enforcement agencies...

When DHS first announced the creation of the NAO for disseminating classified information from America’s spy satellites on August 15, it hadn’t bothered to notify the House Committee on Homeland Security beforehand...

A Homeland Security fact sheet describes the NAO as a “federal advocate” for civil intelligence consumers. The office won’t just process requests, it will educate its new “customers” about what satellites can do for them and even agitate for better funding for their preferred types of satellite.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Wipha Cup

Photo: AFP

While you were doing whatever it is that you do, the Women's World Cup got going in Shanghai and has produced some exciting play. Two more days to go in the first round with some of the places already set for the quarterfinals and one upset exit from the tournament (Sweden). Buzz is that Brazil and North Korea have come of age; results have confirmed it. Germany has mostly dominated its first-round group. The US has looked a bit lackluster but have won their group (this year's "group of death") and have moved into the quarterfinals. The quarterfinals thus far include the US, Germany, North Korea, and England. Brazil should win its group, and I'd say that Norway, Denmark, and Australia will round it off. China has a shot, but they will have to absolutely clobber New Zealand tomorrow, if the match is played. Canada is also still a possible advancer.

But... just as it was all heating up, Typhoon Wipha headed straight at Shanghai. The city has apparently evacuated nearly 2 million people from the region. For more on the typhoon, see here.

Bombing Syria

While Washington was tied up with the continuing game of charades about the Iraq War, enraptured by Gen. Petraeus' and Amb. Crocker's testimony, on September 6th Israel had been busy bombing alleged nuclear facilities or nuclear material transfers in northeast Syria, near Syria's border with Turkey. The US media is nothing if not myopic, and thus there was little reporting on Israel's incursions apart from toeing the administration line, which is, of course, no longer to be trusted at all. But what's up here? It is an obvious act of war, after all, to violate another state's boundaries and engage in a bombing campaign. Furthermore, the US administration is using the event to suggest strong ties between North Korea's nuclear program and a budding Syrian nuclear program. In addition, this becomes a further reason for war with Iran!

The curious thing, however, is that both Israel and Syria have been quiet about the bombing as well. Israel is imposing a censorship clampdown, while Syria says "no biggie." Josh Marshall speculates,
...what did happen in the Syrian desert a couple weeks ago? Most if not all the articles I've seen speculating about a Syrian nuclear program as the target of the raid have had quotes from the always presumptively suspect meddler John Bolton. See for instance today's editorial in the Jerusalem Post. But something of some consequence seems to have taken place. The very sketchy evidence available suggests that it was a substantial operation. And both the Syrians and the Israelis (no doubt for distinct reasons) are being extremely tight-lipped about what happened.

Other possibilities include a raid to take out weapons shipments being transshipped through Syria to Hezbollah or a probing raid to test beefed up Syrian air defenses.

Cheryl Rofer at Whirled View continues the conjecture,

The Observer is trying to put the story together, too. This one seems to be the most credible to me. If Syria had a nuclear program, it was about at the level of Libya's: equipment in boxes, some of it not even unpacked. North Korea's nuclear test told the world that it's not ready to mass-market full-up nuclear weapons, so, even if it was a shipment from North Korea that provoked the Israeli attack, it would more likely have been equipment for a nuclear program than the ultimate threat to Israel.

The fact that Syria has said little about the raid suggests that something not so nice was going on at the facility that was hit and that the raid indeed inflicted the damage Israel desired.

Israel has a number of reasons to remain quiet. It may not want to give away information about the capabilities of its newest bombers. It may not want to inflame relations with Turkey, which was not so far away from the Syrian target. Or things may not have gone as Israel would have preferred, from malfunctions of their new bombers to mistaken intelligence on the target.

In the absence of clear information, John Bolton has made it a two-fer: North Korea is supplying Syria, so we must stop talks with them (although Christopher Hill is not following the neocon line) and it is an excuse for hitting Syria today, Iran tomorrow.

The Observer suggests that it was a dry run for an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear targets. DebkaFile, abandoning its usual run at the title for most sensational reporting, tends to support such an interpretation by suggesting that Israel was checking out the Russian anti-aircraft missiles recently installed in Syria, which have also reportedly been installed in Iran.

One thing would seem clear at this point: the US administration is hardly to be trusted when it comes to establishing justifications for war. One reasonable reaction, from Joseph Cirincione:
This story is nonsense. The Washington Post story should have been headlined "White House Officials Try to Push North Korea-Syria Connection." This is a political story, not a threat story. The mainstream media seems to have learned nothing from the run-up to war in Iraq. It is a sad commentary on how selective leaks from administration officials who have repeatedly misled the press are still treated as if they were absolute truth.
Syria, for its part, says the Israeli raid was aborted and Israeli jets dumped fuel tanks, which then fell on the Turkish side of the border. Turkey protested. Israel, in the meantime, has announced that it's prepared for talks with Syria.

What is going on? With so much secrecy surrounding the event, we'll have to see. But one thing is for certain, friends, if we're ultimately looking at a trial-run in Syria for a bombing campaign against Iran, pay very close attention to the justifications.

In the modern state system, invasions or incursions against another country, as a violation of sovereignty (and thus of the very foundations of the state system), are fundamentally illegal. War is only justified - legally and morally - as a defensive response. Humanitarian intervention may be the sole exception to the rule, but the norms of such intervention are still developing and particular interventions nonetheless require clear consensus in the international community as a moral and legal matter.

This is why the Bush administration was at pains to concoct the preemptive war doctrine: to present the appearance of the Iraq invasion and occupation being a defensive war. And this is why, in the clear absence of WMDs, the administration shifted to humanitarian justifications for the invasion (encouraging democracy, stopping Saddam Hussein's human rights abuses, etc.). But, we know well, they did so under false pretenses. And they did so by using the veil of secrecy ("national security"), by meticulously manipulating the media, and by outright lying to American citizens and the global population.

Given the hugely negative and long-lasting consequences of the Iraq War and its conduct - the enormous loss of life, the multi-billion-dollar expense, the collapse of US international standing, the chaos sowed in the Middle East, the increased risk and motivation for terrorism, etc. - we ought to be so extremely careful about the lead-up to war with Iran that we pore over each detail with a microscope. If you think Iraq is a mess, wait until Iran. Be very careful of believing even the slightest bit of information out of the administration and its parrots in the media.

This is not merely a matter of distrusting this particular administration; it's a matter of determining what this century will look like, and not allowing this incompetent and aggressive administration to determine it for us and future generations.

Betel Nut

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Preventive Paradigm

A decent piece in The Nation on the Bush administration's "preventive paradigm" in fighting terrorism. It has not only not worked; it has wrought its own peculiar forms of destruction. I've discussed the epistemological circularities before in the implementation of US torture (here and here, etc.). Prevention of harms usually seems like a pretty good strategy in most if not all areas of life. But when this is combined with creeping paranoia about the ubiquitousness of enemies and the use of political fear, "prevention" is placed in a context that can easily spark that curious sense of unreality typical of authoritarian leaders. Competence, of course, nearly always goes out the window as well when tale upon tale first serve to hide error and fallibility for political reasons, then become the foundations for an increasingly complex fiction over which no one truly has any control. That's when we all become susceptible to overlooking the abuses in our midst.
The government's "preventive" immigration initiatives have come up even more empty-handed. After 9/11 the Bush Administration called in 80,000 foreign nationals for fingerprinting, photographing and "special registration" simply because they came from predominantly Arab or Muslim countries; sought out another 8,000 young men from the same countries for FBI interviews; and placed more than 5,000 foreign nationals here in preventive detention. Yet as of September 2007, not one of these people stands convicted of a terrorist crime. The government's record, in what is surely the largest campaign of ethnic profiling since the Japanese internment of World War II, is 0 for 93,000.
UPDATE (17 September):

Similar logic (via (via)):
Economics professors have a standard game they use to demonstrate how apparently rational decisions can create a disastrous result. They call it a "dollar auction." The rules are simple. The professor offers a dollar for sale to the highest bidder, with only one wrinkle: the second-highest bidder has to pay up on their losing bid as well. Several students almost always get sucked in. The first bids a penny, looking to make 99 cents. The second bids 2 cents, the third 3 cents, and so on, each feeling they have a chance at something good on the cheap. The early stages are fun, and the bidders wonder what possessed the professor to be willing to lose some money.

The problem surfaces when the bidders get up close to a dollar. After 99 cents the last vestige of profitability disappears, but the bidding continues between the two highest players. They now realize that they stand to lose no matter what, but that they can still buffer their losses by winning the dollar. They just have to outlast the other player. Following this strategy, the two hapless students usually run the bid up several dollars, turning the apparent shot at easy money into a ghastly battle of spiraling disaster.

Theoretically, there is no stable outcome once the dynamic gets going. The only clear limit is the exhaustion of one of the player's total funds. In the classroom, the auction generally ends with the grudging decision of one player to "irrationally" accept the larger loss and get out of the terrible spiral. Economists call the dollar auction pattern an irrational escalation of commitment. We might also call it the war in Iraq.

Climate Change Refugees

Photo: AFP
The case of Tuvalu....
"Is it supposed to become a virtual country?" asked Rainer Lagoni, Professor of Maritime Law at the University of Hamburg. There is no legal definition for a country entirely without land...

A "gradual withdrawal" of the "ocean refugees" via a special certification scheme as proposed by the German federal government is hardly feasible. The term climate refugee is itself full of inconsistencies. Under the Geneva Convention, climate damage is not a basis for humanitarian asylum. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights doesn't guarantee a basic right to a sound environment...

"Of course it doesn't carry the same weight as Darfur," says Lagoni. The apocalyptic campaign has nevertheless been highly effective -- and has also revealed some of the blind spots in international law. Roda Verheyen, a lawyer from Hamburg, focused on the damage caused by climate change and international law for her doctorate back in 2003. At the time, she met with plenty of skepticism -- but since then her work has attracted growing interest. For a long time legal academics had categorically rejected the notion that a country like Tuvalu could claim damages for its devastated environment -- after all it would be impossible to name the guilty party.

But in the meantime a growing number of lawyers have come to consider such claims legitimate. For example, the State of California's case against major automakers is an indication of the future of climate change in jurisprudence -- even though that case only deals with national, as opposed to international, law.

UPDATE (17 September):

More on Tuvalu, here at Japan Focus.

Greenspan Speaketh

In his long-awaited memoir - out tomorrow in the US - Greenspan, 81, who served as chairman of the US Federal Reserve for almost two decades, writes: 'I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.'

In The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, he is also crystal clear on his opinion of his last two bosses, harshly criticising George W Bush for 'abandoning fiscal constraint' and praising Bill Clinton's anti-deficit policies during the Nineties as 'an act of political courage'. He also speaks of Clinton's sharp and 'curious' mind, and 'old-fashioned' caution about the dangers of debt.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Iceland Pulls Out of Iraq

One of the purported 36 coalition nations [mentioned by Bush in his speech two nights ago] is Iceland, whose "contingent" to Iraq consists of a single soldier in Baghdad whose primary responsibility is as a media representative. To NATO's disappointment, Iceland is pulling that one soldier as of October 1. You can't make this stuff up.

Friday, September 14, 2007


In Case You Missed It

Regarding Bush's speech on Iraq last night.

Fred Kaplan (via Balloon Juice):
President Bush's TV address tonight was the worst speech he's ever given on the war in Iraq, and that's saying a lot. Every premise, every proposal, nearly every substantive point was sheer fiction. The only question is whether he was being deceptive or delusional.

The biggest fiction was that because of the "success" of the surge, we can reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq from 20 combat brigades to 15 by next July. Gen. David Petraeus has recommended this step, and President George W. Bush will order it so.

Let's be clear one more time about this claim: The surge of five extra combat brigades (bringing the total from 15 to 20) started in January. Their 15-month tours of duty will begin to expire next April. The Army and Marines have no combat units ready to replace them. The service chiefs refuse to extend the tours any further. The president refuses to mobilize the reserves any further. And so, the surge will be over by next July. This has been understood from the outset. It is the result of simple arithmetic, not of anyone's decision, much less some putative success.
Josh Marshall: we saw in President Bush's speech last night things have gotten to a point where the White House spinmeisters hardly seem even to have their heart in it anymore. And the president just seems to be living in some sort of alternative universe populated by the failed gods of his narcissism and vainglory.

As the president lays out in the second paragraph of his speech, there are first our allies the Iraqis who are battling the extremists who want to take away their freedom and democracy. And we cannot abandon them in this fight. Indeed they are asking us to build an "enduring relationship" (i.e., long-term presence of American troops) with them.

This seems not to take into account that a sizable majority of Iraqis believe it is acceptable to kill our troops in the country. And there is virtual unanimity within the Iraqi population against any permanent American troop presence in the country -- with the exception of the Iraqi Kurds who now enjoy de facto independence under our protection...

Primitive animals will sometimes keep chattering or twitching their muscles even after their heads have been cut off. And that's probably the best analogy today to the president's continuing enunciation of his policies.
And on a side note, Krugman:
Last month the provincial government in Kurdistan, defying the central government, passed its own oil law; last week a Kurdish Web site announced that the provincial government had signed a production-sharing deal with the Hunt Oil Company of Dallas, and that seems to have been the last straw.

Now here’s the thing: Ray L. Hunt, the chief executive and president of Hunt Oil, is a close political ally of Mr. Bush. More than that, Mr. Hunt is a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a key oversight body.

Some commentators have expressed surprise at the fact that a businessman with very close ties to the White House is undermining U.S. policy. But that isn’t all that surprising, given this administration’s history. Remember, Halliburton was still signing business deals with Iran years after Mr. Bush declared Iran a member of the “axis of evil.”

No, what’s interesting about this deal is the fact that Mr. Hunt, thanks to his policy position, is presumably as well-informed about the actual state of affairs in Iraq as anyone in the business world can be. By putting his money into a deal with the Kurds, despite Baghdad’s disapproval, he’s essentially betting that the Iraqi government — which hasn’t met a single one of the major benchmarks Mr. Bush laid out in January — won’t get its act together. Indeed, he’s effectively betting against the survival of Iraq as a nation in any meaningful sense of the term.

The smart money, then, knows that the surge has failed, that the war is lost, and that Iraq is going the way of Yugoslavia. And I suspect that most people in the Bush administration — maybe even Mr. Bush himself — know this, too.

Friday Dinner Party Conversation Stopper

The people is a great vegetable.

- Edward Ward (Social Centers movement leader, early 1900s), cited in Westbrook, Democratic Hope

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Fruit Chimp Sex

Photo: Kimberley Hocking

A rare convergence of Phronesisaical's three main interests.

Forbidden fruit helps male chimpanzees entice females into sex, research now reveals.

Male chimps apparently can win over the opposite sex with the aid of fruit stolen from nearby farms and orchards.

"The male chimpanzees appear to be showing off and trading their forbidden fruit for other currencies—that is, food for sex," said primatologist Kimberley Hockings at the University of Stirling in Scotland...

The researchers found male chimps often pilfered crops, especially targeting papayas. They also took bananas, oranges and pineapples, as well as rice, maize, cassava, okra, sugarcane and cacao. The chimps typically looked nervous while raiding crops, scratching themselves often...

"We believe the males may be using crop raids as a way to advertise their prowess to other group members, especially the opposite sex," Hockings explained. "Daring behavior certainly seems to be an attractive trait, and possessing a sought-after food item, such as papaya, appears to draw even more positive attention from the females."

Looking Good 2

Bush last week with Abu Risha, Sunni sheik supposedly working with the US to battle al Qaeda:

Abu Risha killed in roadside bomb today:

Looking Good

CROCKER: It's all part of American democracy, but Baghdad's never looked so good.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Riverbend Leaves Iraq

Riverbend, blogger of Baghdad Burning, updates after a long period of silence to recount finally leaving Iraq over land for Syria. Best of luck....
...As we crossed the border and saw the last of the Iraqi flags, the tears began again. The car was silent except for the prattling of the driver who was telling us stories of escapades he had while crossing the border. I sneaked a look at my mother sitting beside me and her tears were flowing as well. There was simply nothing to say as we left Iraq. I wanted to sob, but I didn’t want to seem like a baby. I didn’t want the driver to think I was ungrateful for the chance to leave what had become a hellish place over the last four and a half years...

The first minutes after passing the border were overwhelming. Overwhelming relief and overwhelming sadness… How is it that only a stretch of several kilometers and maybe twenty minutes, so firmly segregates life from death?

How is it that a border no one can see or touch stands between car bombs, militias, death squads and… peace, safety? It’s difficult to believe- even now. I sit here and write this and wonder why I can’t hear the explosions.

I wonder at how the windows don’t rattle as the planes pass overhead. I’m trying to rid myself of the expectation that armed people in black will break through the door and into our lives. I’m trying to let my eyes grow accustomed to streets free of road blocks, hummers and pictures of Muqtada and the rest…

Cherry of the Rio Grande

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Happy New Millennium, Ethiopia!

September 11 will be marked by a huge celebration this year—in Ethiopia at least. At the stroke of midnight, Ethiopia will enter into its "new millennium." Following the Ethiopian Orthodox Church's calendar, which is between seven and right years behind the Gregorian calendar due to an arcane dispute with the Roman Catholic Church*, Ethiopia will welcome the first day of the third millennium on September 12. So what's in store for Ethiopia's teeming masses? A year-long period of celebration that will include a procession and parade, sporting activities, exhibitions, galas and parties, and a whole lot of singing and dancing. Many of the festivities will take place in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, according to What's up Addis! and Ethiopia 2000.
However... Refugees: Ethiopia killing civilians in separatist crackdown.

Colin Powell Gets It

Colin Powell in GQ:
What is the greatest threat facing us now? People will say it’s terrorism. But are there any terrorists in the world who can change the American way of life or our political system? No. Can they knock down a building? Yes. Can they kill somebody? Yes. But can they change us? No. Only we can change ourselves. So what is the great threat we are facing?
Powell no doubt means this in the motivational we-will-survive sense. But the janus face is revealed when we place the remarks in the context of post-9/11 institutional restructuring. The administration has hammered home the fear of terrorism and as a result has been able to reconstruct institutions as it sees fit with little public input and run amok with a tragic, disastrous foreign policy. In the face of hugely consequential mistakes and incompetence, self-interested survivalism, and a public slowly awakening from its fearful stupor, the administration has created a giant shell game with domestic and foreign policy to try keep the public confused and to deflect blame (e.g., the troop drawdown - you do know this is simply a proposed reduction in troops to the level before this summer's surge, right? Now we see the goal of the surge...). This is all combined with a Cheney-led growth in the power and unaccountability of the Executive branch, granted to the administration in the early fearful years by Congress and the public, to the extent that the latter had any powers at all. Today, we have a quagmire not only in Iraq, but a growing one at home. And, as best as I can tell, this is all conducted in the name of holding onto power.

Now, what is the greatest threat we face? A political entity attempting to hold onto power by creating its own reality is historically a deadly thing. If the remaining tatters of American democracy cannot challenge that, then it's truly in dangerously fragile shape. That's the greatest threat we face.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Splendor of Scammery

Here's a great little article from The Washington City Paper on a particularly sophisticated email scam. Read through the entire piece. The story itself is fascinating, but it gets especially interesting towards the end.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Manila Mango


A nice discussion on school grades by SteveG at Philosopher's Playground. I like this bundle of questions especially, although Steve's larger discussion moves towards some effects of grading noted by Montessori:
Are grades an artifact of a failed pedagogy? Do we need grades to force students to do a minimum amount of work because we suck at teaching? At the college-level, we are all technicians driven in our fields because we are enamored to point of obsession with what we study. Are we really that bad at motivating the questions that enthrall us?
I learned early on from my greatest professor, John J. McDermott, that grades were simply a matter of course (where they are truly indicative of quality work), when the class was well taught, exciting and engaging, and students felt a sense of "ownership" in the class. I can hardly match up to John's teaching, but the lesson for me was that, when done well, it is possible to eliminate grades as a central issue in a course and have the final grades reflect true quality of work.

I'll just leave it at that,... but in a context in which, at my university at least, there is pressure to hover at a certain average of grades for each class for administrative reasons.

Mapping Anthropogenic Nature

The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World

This is the Aral Sea - map on the left from 1967, map on the right is current. The point of the article in the NY Times from which this map is taken (in addition to advertising the Times' new atlas) is that mapmaking has become a much more dynamic activity. Political boundaries seem to go through spurts of change, as with the post-1989 former Soviet republics, which then require remapping. But the point here is that increasingly maps need reworking because of major changes in the planet's natural geography. The Aral Sea is a high-profile case of relatively quick changes due to a series of astonishingly short-sighted irrigation projects.

The Aral Sea is coming back through human activity as well - particularly, through a World Bank / Kazakh government project (see here) building wiser engineering projects and policies. (Lake Chad, suffering a similar problem, on the other hand, is not).

With the consequences of climate change becoming increasingly striking, we'll be redrawing the maps every other year.

Friday, September 07, 2007


Mp3 Find of the Day

I'm an LP guy who only in the past year decided that mp3s have some merit. The basic merit is that they make obscure and rare LPs easier to find and the music easier to possess. This doesn't mean that one gives up on record stores, thrift shops, and the occasional garage sale for LPs. It simply means that "crate-digging" takes on new meaning. I'll occasionally go on a surf binge browsing for new and old music. Since I have nearly everything I know that I want on LP, downloadable files open up a new avenue for finding the things I didn't know that I wanted until I found them.

So, rather than try to post music files myself, I'll continue to link from time to time to blogs posting interesting music. Phronesisaical doesn't get enough traffic for overloading downloads on another site to be a problem.

Scott Soriano at Crud Crud has a particularly good eye. How can one pass on this?

Soriano's Rule of Record Grubbing No. 2312: Do not pass up a record cover on which a man is playing a flute to a couple of pigs.

And here's another, the early 70s psych band, Tractor, via Raven Sings the Blues.