Friday, December 29, 2006

Authoritarian Russia

Here's a link to the piece I wrote last week for antiwar.com. It's about the Russian government's pressure on Royal Dutch Shell to give up its majority interest in a gas drilling and pipeline operation on Sakhalin Island, of the coast of Siberia. I think it's evidence of increasing authoritarianism in the Putin administration. And with the death of the old president of Turkmenistan, Russia is likely to look to increase its influence in that country (which has natural gas Russia would like to monopolize). Given that most of the rulers of the Central Asian "stans" are old codgers, several of whom were simply the old communist governors when the Soviet Union considered them part of its empire, the whole region could see some turmoil when they start to die off.

Faster spin cycle

With the 24/7 media, former President Ford went from benevolent healing statesman who saved the country to failed and inept but lovable president, all in about 36 hours after his death. In the old days it might have taken weeks for the media to perform that exercise in revisionism.

Iraq Study Group? What Iraq Study Group?

The Iraq Study Group – not the country’s first exercise in outsourcing important policy decisions to unelected ”wise men” who are reliable purveyors of conventional wisdom – produced what it called a comprehensive, integrated plan. The administration seems to be putting it up on a dart board and throwing darts blindfolded to see which suggestions it will pretend to implement. Ah, the wonders of democratic governance! Too bad Iraq can’t learn to do things so efficiently.

Censorship in Venezuela

Hugo Chavez in Venezuela is showing that like most virtually absolute rulers, his tendency is to get more absolute over time. It seems the more power these clowns have the more thin-skinned and absolutist they become. Chavez just won reelection by a considerable margin and his power is virtually unchallenged. But there's this pesky TV station that's aligned with the opposition, so he wants them silenced.

To be sure, Radio Caracas Television, which has been around since 1953, did support a 2003 "general strike" against Chavez that led to a failed coup attempt. So Chavez, in a speech to his troops, said its license was due for renewal in March and renewal would not be forthcoming. "There will be no new operating license for this coupist TV channel called RCTV," he crowed. "So go turn off the equipment."

This shows what can happen when the government licenses the media. What the government gives it can take away for the most blatantly political or arbitrary reason.

I doubt it would happen here, but if we were smart we would move quickly eliminate the government's power to license the broadcast media. The founders would have included them as part of "the press," about which "Congress shall make no law" restricting their freedom. A medium that depends on a license from government to operate is not genuinely independent.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Justice in Durham?

Well, the North Carolina Bar Association has filed ethics charges against Durham County DA Mike Nifong, who has so thoroughly disgraced himself in the Duke lacrosse player rape-charge case. Could this be the beginning of justice for this disgrace to the legal proession (which takes some doing)? Maybe not until he's run out of town on a rail.

Throttling milk drinkers

One of the more shameful actions Congress took last year (a more detailed version of the story is available here) was crushing an innovative dairyman who found a way around federal dairy regulations that artificially raise the price of milk and cost consumers, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, some $1.5 billion.

It was a bipartisan conspiracy, embodied in an amendment that was never subject to committee hearings through a procedure usually reserved for “non-controversial” legislation.

Hein Hettinga is a Dutch-born dairyman who started out as a hired hand in Southern California dairies and through entrepreneurial moxie came to own several dairies. Then he figured out a way around federal milk marketing regulations.

Passed in the 1930s when most dairies were small and localized, federal milk regulations guarantee a given price – a “floor” price, higher than the market would dictate, of course – for dairies who deliver raw milk to cooperatives or food processors. The U.S. Department of Agriculture enforces these prices through milk “marketing orders.” Defenders of the system laughably claim it benefits consumers.

But the 1937 law allows “producer-handlers,” who bottle milk only from their own cows, to operate outside the pools. For small operators this can be risky. But Hein Hettinga had become a fairly large-scale dairy owner.

So in the early 1990s he built his own bottling plant in Yuma, Arizona. His first customers were in Mexico, then he got a large chain store in Arizona to carry his milk. In 2002 he and his son built a second bottling plant in Yuma to supply Costco stores in Southern California.

The effect on prices was immediate, lowering the wholesale price of milk by 20 cents a gallon. Other suppliers had to cut their prices and their bloated government-supported profits.

Well! Such consumer-friendly marketing couldn’t be tolerated for long. Republican Sen. John Kyl of Arizona introduced a bill to force Hettinga to pay into the state’s diary pool even though he operated outside of it. That didn’t pick up steam until Sen. Kyl united with Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who had issues dairy farmers in Nevada wanted him to address.
Hettinga did hire his own lobbyists, but he was no match for the milk cartel Dean Foods, with 100 plants around the country, spent more than $600,000 on political contributions in 2005 and 2006, and the dairy industry dropped at least $2.5 million on lobbying. (If that sounds like a lot, consider the $1.5 billion the laws force consumers to put in the dairy industry’s pockets each year.)

Last March the amendment was quietly passed, by 13 votes, forcing Hettinga to pay $40,000 a month to the milk marketing pool – subsidizing his competitors.
In a free society with even a glancing understanding of free-market principles, the milk marketing laws would be repealed instantly. Instead they have been reconfigured to hurt one lone producer who simply wanted to offer lower prices to consumers.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Jerry Ford the clumsy?

I was glad an ESPN talking head -- at halftime of the Emerald Bowl, before my beloved Bruins got slaughtered in the second half by Florida State -- discuss one aspect of Jerry Ford's image. He was probably the best athlete to occupy the White House, a skier and golfer of some skill in addition to being a football player invited to play professionally after a sterling college career -- back in 1933 or so, but still. But because he bumped his head and tripped a couple of times in public -- helped along by Chevy Chase back when Saturday Night Live was usually funny -- he got the reputation of being clumsy and subject to funny pratfalls.

Admittedly, interior linemen -- Ford was a center -- aren't known to be gazelle-like, but they have to be highly coordinated to succeed. Ford was highly successful at the University of Michigan, named the team's most valuable player. He hadn't suddenly become a complete klutz by 1975 or so.

In a way, however, the klutz image could be taken as a metaphor for other aspects of his presidency. As fondly as we may view him in retrospect, as much as we might appreciate his basic decency after Nixon, as grateful as we might be that he didn't hector us after leaving the presidency, his term in office was marked by some notable missteps. His Whip Inflation Now (WIN) program was a joke, he continued to approach the oil crisis with controls rather than the decontrol under Reagan that finally worked, his White House was factionalized -- Rumsfeld and Cheney were key players, honing their bureaucratic infighting capabilities -- and on and on. Perhaps his political klutziness was part-and-parcel of his basic decency. He was open and candid and far from calculating.

Trouble in Somalia

Here's a reasonably good background piece on the current fighting in Somalia, by Jonathan Stevenson of the U.S. Naval War College, published in today's Wall Street Journal.

Summarizing and omitting some nuances, here's the situation. Somalia hasn't really had a central government since the "Black Hawk Down" period in 1994, despite some efforts by the U.S. and U.N. to establish one. In fact, this wasn't such a bad situation, as I wrote in a column some years ago; various traditional tribal societies controlled various territories within the Somali region and generally didn't bother one another too much. Despite -- or because of -- the lack of a central government there was some economic development of a Hayekian spontaneous order nature, but without the agreement on rules of trade across a broad region that is usually required to really jumpstart development.

More recently, however, Somalis and outside helpers established the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), but a competitor for power has developed in the Islamist Islamic Courts Union, which actually controls more territory in Somalia, including the traditional capital of Mogadishu. Ethiopia, a traditionally Christian nation (though about 49 percent Muslim now) opposes jihadism and has sent troops to root out the Islamic Courts militia in support of the TFG. So far the more experienced Ethiopian troops have had the better of it, but Eritrea, a traditional rival of Ethiopia is supporting the Islamic Courts, so that's probably not a final outcome. The U.S. is tacitly supporting Ethiopia.

I suspect we would be better off not trying to create a Western-model nation-state superstructure in Somalia. Once there's even a simulacrum of a power center power-hungry or religiously motivated forces will want to seize and control it. If the current fighting continues, however, or if the Islamists seem on the verge of success, pressure could build for the U.S. to intervene out of fear that a state-protected base for jihad could be established. I think that would be a foolish move, but . . .

The situation bears watching.

So Monica has brains too?

So Monica Lewinsky has earned a Master's in social psychology from the prestigious London School of Economics, with a thesis on the difficulty of finding unbiased jurors in the midst of media publicity. She has to have a certain amount of smarts to have accomplished that. Here's a snippy-but-cute piece on the smart-but-dumb phenomenon -- when otherwise smart people do incredibly dumb things, or cultivate a dumb persona.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Gerald Ford, RIP

Gerald Ford may well have been the most thoroughly decent man to have been president in the 20th century. In so many ways he was the right man after the cunning Nixon decamped. His presidency as such was not especially successful -- I remember attending a Whip Inflation Now rally in Washington, where I spent most of the '70s, when the slogan/program was announced and marveling at how empty of substance it all was. And he appointed J0hn Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court, a serious misstep. But he restored a sense of decency to the presidency. Perhaps we should not forgive him for that, for the Imperial Presidency has grown apace since then, to the detriment of the country. But at the time he was marvelously reassuring.

Jerry Ford was something of an accidental president. He had a safe seat from Grand Rapids and that helped him rise to House Minority Leader, then to the vice presidency when Agnew resigned in disgrace. His essential decency seemed reassuring, but I suspect that while he was OK as a minority leader he was just not cunning and calculating enough to be a completely successful president.

In a way, I owe my first job on Capitol Hill to Jerry Ford. Everyone said Hill experience was essential to a career inWashington, and I thought that's what I wanted at the time. I had contacts among Republicans and conservatives that led me to the vice president's Senate office, where a very nice and shrewd man -- how terrible I've forgotten his name now -- was placing conservatives in jobs. I was a confirmed libertarian then and seldom bothered to hide it, but I got along with conservatives.

There was a press aide job open in the office of Earl Ruth, from Salisbury, North Carolina. Earl, a former football coach who had been put in Congress by the brothers who owned the local furniture factory, had been in the Navy with Jerry Ford, and I'm sure the fact that his office recommended me was a factor in my getting the job. In fact, of course, Jerry Ford never met me and was entirely innocent of any knowledge about my job search with his old Navy friend.

Earl Ruth, another very nice man who was not cut out to be much of a politician, was swept out in the Watergate landslide of 1974 and I was unemployed again for the third Christmas in a row. But we survive one way or another.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Problems

I don't know why my blogs have not been posting, nor do I know what the stupid error message means

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

President losing it?

One of our readers and a fairly frequent caller phoned me at the office today to lament the president. I haven't seen tape or film of it yet, but this guy is usually fairly reliable. He says the president in his news conference looks as if he has just about given up, he has no spark, no inspiration, no leadership. As he was an early supporter of the war who wanted it to go well, my friend is extremely disillusioned with Bush. It's bad for our country, he says, when the president is seen to be a loser.

I disagree. I think it's good for the country when the president is seen to be fallible, just another human being who climbed the slippery pole of politics and in the process lost a good deal of whatever soul he had at one time. It's good for the people to see the president fumbling, and it's good for people to distrust him -- whoever he (or she) is. A free people should never elevate a mere political leader to a godlike level of respect, nor should the health of the country be equated with the presidency, either as person or institution. A free people should approach any leader with more skepticism than veneration. Insofar as the presidency has become imperial, seeing the president knocked down a few pegs is good for the country.

Time's lameness

It is difficult to express just how lame Time's Person of the Year concept is. A little Mylar mirror on the cover because the Person of the year is You-You-You, who are remaking the world through the Internet. I guess I'm supposed to be flattered because I not only blog here but I blog at ocregister.com and write for the online site antiwar.com. Let's face it, however. I'm a bit of a late-adopter; I probably should have been blogging several years ago. But if I'm a late adopter Time is clueless. Plus they feature not people who are doing significant things on the Web but people who are doing trivial or silly things. Nothing wrong with trivial or silly, of course. But it's not often a harbinger of greatness.

You'd think American culture was narcissistic enough already without this encouragement.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A surge in wishful thinking

Robert Gates's comments on being sworn in as Secretary of Defense yesterday suggest that the hope some people had invested in him as an independent voice who would help to lead the Bushlet out of the Iraqi sandtrap was misplaced. He said the usual stuff about how disastrous it would be to leave before the job was done without specifying just what the job was.

The latest hope for snatching a semblance of something that could be spun as victory in Iraq is the idea of “surging” the number of U.S. troops in the country on a temporary basis. Send in an extra 20,000 to 50,000 troops for six months or so to clean out the nests of insurgents and extremists in Baghdad and elsewhere, goes the theory, and the struggling Iraqi government just might have a chance to stabilize itself and be in a position to handle security in the near future.

According to leaks from the deliberations, civilians in the White House are pushing for a “surge” and the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously oppose the idea. The Pentagon, according to the Washington Post, warns that a short-term mission “could give an enormous edge to virtually all the armed factions in Iraq.” More troops could lead to more attacks – or the well-armed Shia militias could simply melt back into society for a while and reemerge, perhaps more formidable than before, when the temporary build-up ends.

If a temporary increase were really temporary, designed as a face-saving prelude to substantial withdrawal of U.S. troops, it might be worth supporting. And, as Ted Carpenter, vice president for international studies at the libertarian Cato Institute points out, it could be spun as a success. “Every year so far violence has declined during the winter months, only to surge, so to speak, when summer comes. If a decline in violence coincides with an increase in U.S. troops, that might offer a way for the U.S. to declare victory and come home,” he told me today on the phone.

Pentagon officials may be influenced by the latest Pentagon assessment of the security situation in Iraq. The quarterly report, mandated by Congress, shows that attacks against American and Iraqi targets were at their highest level since the reports began. There were an average of 960 attacks a week against American and Iraqi forces in the August-November period, a 22 percent increase over May-August.

An increase in U.S. forces in Baghdad proper during that period at first had some success in reducing the number of attacks. But sectarian death squads quickly adapted, focusing on neighborhoods where the U.S. had not yet established a presence. And the Pentagon report noted that “Shia death squads leveraged support from some elements of the Iraqi Police Service and National Police,” hardly an encouraging development.

It is long past time to acknowledge that the U.S. invasion has not brought democracy in Iraq and that the U.S. is unable to pacify a country deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines.
In the context of the worldwide struggle to cope with al-Qaida and other terrorists, this is a setback, not a defeat. The United States will remain the most formidable force on the planet, perhaps made wiser by having attempted too much in one region on the basis of faulty intelligence.

Admitting a mistake and cutting our losses should strengthen us for other aspects of the long-term effort to neutralize the appeal of Islamic extremists and their ability to do damage to the U.S. and its friends and allies.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Setback for Ahmadinejad

To be sure democracy is something of a sham in Iran. Of the 490 people who initially registered to run for the Assembly of Experts (the more recent the democracy the sillier the titles of the institutions?), 240 were rejected by the Guardian Council, which mainly guards the mullahs' interests. So the choices available to voters are artificially constricted.

Even within the confines of those constricted choices, however, Iranian voters last Friday were able to register at least mild disapproval of President Ahmadinejad, whose most recent stunt was last week's conclave of Holocaust-deniers and Israel haters. Candidates favored by Ahmadinejad didn't" do well in Assembly of Experts and city council races. Those the media call "moderates" did better, though it's difficult to know just what that term means in an Iranian context. Perhaps Iranians were embarrassed by last week's conference.

Even a tyranny rests on implied consent; if all those who disapproved of a tyranny actually revolted, even or especially non-violently, the security forces would never be able to control the situation, as we found out in the former-Soviet empire. The Iranian regime has been told that it has less consent than perhaps it thought it had, and that the president is an embarrassment. We'll see if it has an impact on Ahmadinejad's behavior. It could make a difference in international efforts to at least try to control (or lacking that monitor) Iranian nuclear projects, which might or might not include a weapon.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Gary Webb remembered

Robert Parry, the former AP writer who now does news analysis at consortiumnews.com, has done an excellent piece on Gary Webb, the former San Jose Mercury-News writer who committed suicide a bit more than two years ago, on December 9, 2004. Gary was a fine investigative reporter who wrote a series called "Dark Alliance" in 1996 that explored a link between the Nicaraguan Contras during the Reagan years and the introduction of crack cocaine into inner-city neighborhoods in the 1980s. The gist -- I haven't reread it in years --was that the Contras sold drugs to raise money for their activities (it was prudent of them to have sources other than Oliver North) and much of it was cocaine, and they were instrumental in creating the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s.

I don't think Gary outright said that the Contras created the crack-cocaine epidemic single-handedly, and I would be a bit wary of such a claim. But there is little question that the Contras sold drugs -- as did the Sandinista government they were fighting -- to raise money.

This is hardly a unique situation. It's simply one of the ways that drug prohibition feeds violence. Drug runners and guerrilla fighters (or terrorists or insurgent groups or people addicted to adrenalin rushes) have certain common interests. Guerrillas need money and weapons and secure hiding places.

Under prohibition drugs are ridiculously overpriced, so they are a ready source of cash for unscrupulous or risk-taking or criminal-minded people who are adept at violence and clandestine activity. Drug runners also need hiding places and ways to transport things without the authorities being aware of them or being able to intercept them. It would be astounding if people with such intersecting needs and interests didn't run across one another, and they do. Drug money has financed all kinds of political violence -- in Colombia today, in Kosovo and plenty of other places.

Anyway, Gary was initially praised for his articles, but when they were criticized, beginning in the Washington Times, the journalistic "community" pretty much left him to hang out to dry. The Mercury-News transferred him to some podunk bureau where he would cover car wrecks and city council meetings and the like.

I remember calling him when I found out he was transferred and telling him I thought he was getting a raw deal and wishing him well. He thanked me and said I was one of only a few California journalists who had called and said they appreciated what he had done -- which despite the criticism still holds up pretty well, as Robert Parry shows in his article.

That was the only contact I had with Gary, whose life seems to have fallen apart after that. I regret now that I didn't stay in touch with him. He was a talented investigative reporter who was treated shabbily by his newspaper and most of the vaunted journalistic "community."

Bye Bye Kofi

I think I live in the real world, so I hardly expected Kofi Annan’s last public speech as Secretary-General of the United Nations to be an introspective summing-up of the manifold failures and weakness of the organization he headed for 10 years and of his abject failure – nay, resistance – to any semblance of reform in one of the most unaccountable organizations in modern times. It was just not in the cards for him to acknowledge that the Iraqi Oil-for Food program was perhaps the biggest scandal in history and that he personally profited from it and tried to cover it up, or that rape by U.N. peacekeepers is a problem, or that the Human Rights Council created from the ashes of the U.N. Human Rights Commission is an utter farce.

But a speech at the Truman Library in Missouri dedicated to criticizing the United States for failing to cooperate more fully with the U.N. in pursuit of woolly, sometimes hypocritical and always statism-enhancing projects around the world was a bit much to take.
I guess I feel much the way Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel did after Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chavez came to the U.N. earlier this year and called President Bush “the devil.” Don’t come into our country and criticize our president and our government. That’s our job.

There are plenty of Americans – including, ahem, this writer, from the beginning – who have criticized the Iraq war and other aspects of U.S. foreign policy. There is plenty to criticize there. But we have just held an election whose results guarantee that the president will be under much more serious scrutiny and criticism for the next two years. We don’t need Kofi Annan lecturing us on our “responsibilities.”

To give Kofi some credit, it is valid to worry whether “America remains true to its principles, including in the struggle against terrorism.” But the five “principles” he considers essential in this age – collective responsibility, global solidarity, rule of law, mutual accountability and multilateralism – are either ignored by the U.N. or are vaporous clich├ęs.

The principles this country should worry about abandoning are constitutional limited government, respect for individual liberty and property rights, and an emphasis on individual responsibility. The Kofi Annans of this world would have us abandon them at an accelerated pace.

Well, great harm, no foul. Kofi Annan, having made the U.N. even more irrelevant then before he took over, will go on to luxuriant sinecures funded by deluded billionaires. It would be appropriate if he were never heard from again.

Iranian absurdities

Next year I suppose Iran will host an international gathering of the Flat Earth Society. “Our purpose is not to deny or confirm that the Earth is a spheroid,” an organizer will intone sanctimoniously. “We simply want to provide an opportunity for those whose views are derided and suppressed in the Imperialist West to be able to speak freely and openly. This is an important topic that deserves a fresh and independent investigation.”

Those are almost exact quote from organizers of the two-day “International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust” that just wrapped up in Tehran. Absurd stuff, but with a serious side.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called the Holocaust a myth, though on other occasions he has claimed to be ready to be convinced. But to call a conference and invite worthies like Louisiana’s Ku Kluxer David Duke, the Frenchman Georges Thiel and the German-born Australian Fredrick Toeben, whose specialty is denying the Nazis had gas chambers, seems over the top.

To be sure, European countries like France, Germany and Austria, which have laws against denying the Holocaust, unwittingly set the Iranians up for this. These laws against freedom of speech and inquiry – even foolish, crackpot or uninformed speech and inquiry – allow the Iranian regime, which strictly controls and punishes speech by Iranians it doesn’t like, to pose as the friend of free inquiry and persecuted “scholars.”

Ahmadinejad has given the real game away several times, most recently at the conclusion of this bogus conference. “The Zionist regime will be wiped out soon the same way the Soviet Union was,” he intoned, “and humanity will achieve freedom.”

Here the riff. If the Holocaust hadn’t happened, the newly formed United Nations would not have authorized and recognized the state of Israel – which is a plausible although arguable proposition. So if we decide the Holocaust never happened, then there’s no justification for the existence of Israel, and we can feel morally justified in saying it should be eliminated. Get it?

That doesn’t account for all the Jews who started moving to the Holy Land at the beginning of the previous century and were numerous and organized enough to demand independence from the British, who ran the place following World War I and were ready to shed their overseas empire after World War II, but hey, no historical theory is perfect.

So why this event? Ahmadinejad has expressed the desire many times to wipe Israel off the map, and Iran has financed and provided training for Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations that attack Israel. Whether Iran would use a nuclear weapon, if it ever built one, on Israel (which has the capacity to respond in kind) is another question, but the Iranian regime’s hostility to Israel, with all that implies for continued unrest in the Middle East, is unquestionable. This conference was an attempt to justify that hostility.

I still think it's better to laugh out loud at it rather than to denounce it in horrified and pompous statements. But there is a serious side to it.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Whence the polonium-210?

The death of former KGB spy and Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko through poisoning by the exotic nuclear material polonium-210 has occasioned a good deal of outrage and a mad scramble to try to track down possible suspects. Vladimir Putin's government is a prime suspect, of course, though there may be reasons to doubt that and there are plenty of unsavory characters in the Russian underworld who might have a motive.

In this article, however, longtime watcher of things clandestine Edward Jay Epstein argues that the most important thing is to try to track down where the polonium-210 came from -- which will probably help in identifying who did it. But a leak of polonium is troubling for this reason:

"If a rogue nation (or terrorist group) obtained access to any quantity of polonium -- even, say, a half gram -- it could use it as in initiator for setting off the chain reaction in a crude nuclear bomb. With a fissile fuel, such as U-235, and beryllium (which is mixed in layers with the polonium-210), someone could make a "poor man's" nuke. Even lacking these other ingredients, the polonium-210, which aerosolizes at about 130 degrees Fahrenheit, could be used with a conventional explosive, like dynamite, to make a dirty bomb."

Epstein tracks what is known about where traces of polonium-210 have shown up to offer a guide for investigators and interested observers.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Why bug princess Di?

Sorry about paucitude of post. Never the most tech-savvy person (I'm Alan but I think not logged in that way), I posted several items last week to an extinct account. I'll try to retrieve them or recreate them later in the day.

For now, I'm fascinated not just that Princess Di's driver the night she was killed was likely at three times the blood-alcohol legal limit, but that it turns out the U.S. "secret services" were watching Diana and bugging her phone calls. (Because the Brits have different ways of saying certain things, the newspaper items might not mean the -- capitalized -- Secret Service, charged with protecting the president and his/her family.)

This was during the Clinton administration. Mickey Kaus has appropriate links and appropriate questions on his blog over at Slate.com. Why? Was there a proper warrant? Could it have been because Diana had an "intimate relationship" with U.S. billionaire Ron Forstmann, an active Republican who once made noises about running against Hillary? Can it be that the Bush administration didn't invent warrantless wiretapping?

Can it be that abuse of intelligence power is more or less built into the system rather than being the province of a particular president, party or administration?

Years ago -- I read a couple of books and interviewed several former LAPD officers some 20 years ago -- the LAPD used to spend an inordinate amount of its intelligence resources digging up dirt on Hollywood celebrities. The department seldom leaked the info but was known to hold deleterious information (which would probably be a career-enhancer these days) over peoples' heads to get cooperation or deter criticism. Can it be as simple as that intelligence services are almost as celebrity-obsessed as the media? Doesn't say much for their seriousness about "protecting" the American people.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Study Group flights of fancy

The Iraq Study Group report contains certain bows to reality, but a number of flights of fancy that suggest the members of the group -- who are, after all, all veteran government employees, suggesting their grasp on reality was never all that strong – have no notion about how hard it would be to implement their ideas.

The most impressive aspect of the report is the assessment contained in the first 40 pages. It is grim but essentially realistic. It highlights the increasing levels of violence and the inability of the current “stay the course” strategy – which is no strategy at all but hope wrapped in illusion – or the Iraqi government as currently constituted to improve conditions substantially.
Most of the troubling facts are here. “Violence is increasing in scope, complexity, and lethality.” Sectarian violence, between Sunni and Shia Iraqis, is the major contributor, while “Al Qaeda is responsible for a small portion of the violence in Iraq, but that includes some of the more spectacular acts.” U.S. “military units are under significant strain.” Iraqi security forces are being trained but there are serious questions as to whether they are loyal to a national Iraqi government or to sectarian or tribal groupings, and they are in no position to provide security within Iraq without outside help.

What to do? That’s when it gets a bit nutty. The report’s recommendations are a combination of practical incremental steps and utopian flights of fancy.

The essence? Newly intensified U.S. diplomatic and military efforts combined with timetables for the Iraqi government to accomplish important goals like demobilizing independent militias. Adjusting the U.S. mission to emphasize training of Iraqis by “embedding” U.S. advisers in Iraqi security units rather than confronting insurgents and sectarian militias directly. This should lead to being able to withdraw roughly half of the 141,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, perhaps by the end of next year. But those remaining would do so on an open-ended basis.
The group’s first proposal, however, strikes me as part useful and part pie--in-the-sky. Launch a “comprehensive New Diplomatic Offensive to deal with the problems of Iraq and the region.” This would include forming an Iraq International Support Group consisting of all countries that border on Iraq, including Iran and Syria,, plus Egypt, the Gulf States, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and other countries – perhaps Germany, Japan and South Korea.

This group would then work to stabilize Iraq, on the assumption that all these countries fear chaos in Iraq, for various regions, including the fear that it might lead to destabilizing their own governments. The Support Group, however, “will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East unless the United States deal directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict.” So the U.S. should bring Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Palestinians who recognize Israel’s right to exist to the table and get a comprehensive peace process going.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, despite occasional respites. has resisted outside mediation for decades. Why does the study group think a new effort is likely to succeed? Beyond noting that “The vast majority of the Israeli body politic is tired of being a nation perpetually at war,” the report does not identify new hopeful developments, and it elides negative developments like the election of a Hamas majority in the Palestinian Authority parliament and the recent war in Lebanon.
It is probably useful to reopen relations and talks with Iran and Syria. But to expect such talks to resolve all the region’s problems sounds utopian.

Other problems are sidestepped. The report acknowledges, for example, that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki to a large extent owes his position to the fiercely anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, yet it wants Maliki to disarm that and other Shia militias. How is he to do this?

While acknowledging that the Iraqi central government, such as it is, lacks the capacity to provide security, provide basic services like electricity and trash collection, and is rife with corruption and dominated by sectarian forces, the report expects it to “pull up its socks” (as a certain former Defense Secretary might put it) and go forward with a unity government that respects the rights of minorities and divides oil revenues equitably. It will probably take more than forming an international support group and embedding a few U.S. troops in Iraqi units.

The report never touches the most fateful question. What if the current Iraqi government, which is more fiction than reality already, effectively crumbles?

What is needed in Iraq is more than a minor course correction, but dramatic steps toward ending U.S. involvement in a country we never should have invaded in the first place. There are risks in that course as in any course, including an intensification of sectarian violence or civil war.
The United States started this war and bears some responsibility for the aftermath. But almost four years on it has demonstrated that, as an occupying power whose influence is rapidly diminishing, it cannot solve Iraq’s problems. It is time to let the Iraqis have a go at it.

Better link

I just tried the link to the Baker-Hamilton report in my previous post and it wasn't satisfactory. This link should do the job.

Gates: a dubious saviour

The hearings yesterday on Robert Gates, the new Secretary of Defense, were oh, so chummy and full of hope for a bipartisan future. No significant mention of Iran-Contra or the troubles he ran into the first time Bush 41 tried to promote him to head of the CIA. Pardon me if I register a certain degree of skepticism.

The current atmosphere is based on performance in hearings, not performance in the job. Gates is obviously smooth and well-informed, and deft at playing to all sides. Whether those will be assets when he actually has to make decisions is another matter. Remember it was not so long ago that Don Rumsfeld was the rock star of the administration and now he's the scapegoat.

When he was appointed, there was a flurry of questions as to where Gates stood: was he a traditional conservative, a neoconservative or a Bush family retainer? The answer seems to be that he is a consummate careerist and has been all of those things. He served happily with Brezinski during the Carter administration, then with Casey during the Reagan administration, then with Bush 41 and Scowcroft. Those people represent distinct approaches to U.S. foreign policy -- "realist" Brezinski had significant differences with "realist" Kissinger and his disciple Scowcroft, and both were different from consummate cold warrior "Wild Bill" Casey (head of the CIA under Reagan). Gates accommodated himself to all of them, ending up quite beholden to the Bush family, which was instrumental in getting him into position at Texas A&M.

One of my constant callers, a retired former spook with broad experience, who spent a good deal of time in Texas when Gates was active there, thinks that Gates is a nothing, a glib bootlicker. I don't know for sure, but this guy is often right.

I would prefer to be wrong, but I suspect a lifetime of being all things to all people will lead to trimming, splitting differences and pleasing nobody. I give him a four-month honeymoon.

Link to ISG report

Here's a link to the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report issued today. It's in PDF format. I'll be reading the whole thing today and commenting on it when I get the opportunity. Your comments are welcome.

Yesterday's news?

How interesting. It looks as if the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report, out today, already feels like yesterday's news, or a footnote to history, what with all the leaks in advance and the frenzied commentary. I haven't found the full report on the Web yet, but I will, and as usual, I'll be conscientious enough to read pretty much the whole thing.

What I wonder -- and doubt -- is whether it will deal with the core question most people are trying to avoid. What if Maliki's government, which is something of a fiction anyway, noticeably falls apart? The problem with the Iraqi army is not its level of training, but its loyalty. Most of the units now are suspected to be essentially sectarian militias rather than arms of a "unity government," as the president continues, against all evidence to the contrary, to call it. He seems to prefer a fantasy-world to the real world, and maybe he's virtually incapable of recognizing reality when he sees it. But whhat if even the fiction of a national government disappears over the next few months?

Do we get the hell out, join one of the sides (probably the Shia, a genuinely catastrophic idea), or hunker down on the relatively isolated and reasonably secure bases in the countryside, hoping to mediate (sometimes forcefully) among the inevitable incursions from Iran, Syria, Jordan Saudi Arabia, etc?

None of the options looks especially attractive.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Iraq: prospects for leaving

Here's a link to my latest column on antiwar.com. It's a discussion of the prospects for a fairly prompt withdrawal from Iraq -- dim in my view unless the Democrats act more forcefully than I expect them to, which suggests more activity contacting congresscritters by people who oppose the war might be a good idea.

Several antiwar.com readers wrote calling me kind of wimpy for not advocating impeachment. It's not that I'm against it -- I wish we'd impeached more presidents in our history and thrown a few out of office, just to keep them suitably nervous. But while the "high crimes and misdemeanors" phrase in the impeachment clause sounds all hyper-legal and like the definition of a criminal act, it's really a term of art with a fairly open definition. In political terms it means, "We're sick of you, bud, and it's time for you to go."

Impeachment is a quintessentially political process, as much as it might appear to be legal. I suspect that politically, the U.S. is not there yet when it comes to Dubya (perhaps in part because of lingering revulsion about the Clinton impeachment, which delighted me). Could be that impeachment sentiment will increase. I'll cheer if it does, but promoting it is not a top priority for me just now.

Hybrids: wrong approach

According to this report in the SF Chronicle, sales of hybrid autos have fallen sharply since August. The reasons? Falling gasoline prices, a smaller tax credit on the most popular models, and a shortage of stickers that allow them to drive in carpool lanes in California.
Hybrids accounted for 1.77 percent of all vehicle sales in August, but only 1.52 percent in November.
Despite the slowdown in sales, we're not seeing price cuts for hybrids (around $26,000 for a Toyota Prius and $23,000-plus for a Honda Civic). That could change, acording to the story, if inventories start to mount.
The aspect of the story that the story itself slights is the idea that very few hybrids indeed might be sold if there were no tax credit. The feds extend a tax credit (more valuable than a deduction) to hybrid buyers, but it starts to phase out once a manufacturer has sold 60,000 units. The amounts are not negligible. Toyota Prius buyers got a $3,150 tax credit in September, but that shrank to $1,575 in October.
I have nothing against offering hybrids to the buying public and even have a certain sympathy with the idea. But at this point they are more expensive than a comparable internal-combustion auto. Giving a tax credit means that people who choose not to buy hybrids are forced to subsidize those who do.
I'm pretty sure that eventually something more efficient and more environment-friendly will replace the internal-combustion engine. It is more likely to happen, not less likely (though it may take a bit longer), if the government doesn't try to "force" the market through interventions like subsidies or special taxes.
Ethanol, for example, is in fact a poor candidate and would probably not even be in the running if not for taxpayer subsidies that enrich Iowa corn farmers, Archer-Daniels-Midland and various oil companies. But it's diverting attention and resources away from the search for a genuinely superior alternative. Hybrids might well turn out to be that superior alternative, but we'll be less sure of it than we would otherwise be because of tax credits distorting the feedback mechanism of the market.

Rumsfeld the scapegoat

I'm not exactly Don Rumsfeld's biggest fan, but during the hearings for Robert Gates, Bush's nominee to replace him as Secretary of defense, it looks as if everybody is piling on him as the sole cause of everything that's gone wrong in Iraq. Not that Rummie is without blame, and he's apparently a prickly guy to work for or with, but the Iraq debacle has many fathers, the principal one being George W. Bush. But Gen. Sanchez, Paul Bremer, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and the whole Weekly Standard gang share paternity.

Yesterday I was inclined to agree with Ted Carpenter at the Cato Intitute that the Nov. 6 Rumsfeld memo leak to the NY Times was likely a "friendly" leak from inside the administration, designed to show that the administration was open to alternatives. Today I'm speculating that it came from Rumsfeld or some of his remaining allies, aware of the scapegoating and designed to distance Rumsfeld from the administration that decided he was a liability. It could be intended to show that he was aware of reality and capable of independent thinking -- and to distance himself from the administration in service of his future legacy, if any.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Counting the cost

The administration is still being a bit coy, but it is possible that this will be a key week in U.S. Iraq policy. The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group is expected to release its recommendations Wednesday, and yesterday a leaked memo written by outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld two days before he resigned (or was fired) was published in the New York Times. On Sunday national security adviser Stephen Hadley (also subject to the leaked-memo syndrome) suggested that the president is ready to make “significant changes” in U.S. strategy in Iraq.

Few analysts have stressed the costs of various alternatives. To date U.S. taxpayers have sunk $340 billion or so into this war and occupation, and the ongoing cost is about $8 billion a month – even apart from the ongoing loss of life among American military personnel and Iraqis. It may sound cold-blooded, but it would be useful to apply the principles of cost-benefit analysis to the Iraqi commitment.
A ruthless dictator has been ousted from power. Although plenty of mistakes have been made along the way, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been trained for military and security duty, several elections have been held in relative peace, and thousands of Iraqis have gained experience in relatively democratic practical politics.

On the down side, many Iraqi security forces act more like sectarian militias than a national force for unity or reconciliation. Violence and the deaths of innocents have increased rather than decreased. The United States is less popular in Iraq and around the world than it was three years ago. We are steadily eroding the all-volunteer force, the backbone of U.S. military strength and harming morale in the National Guard and reserves. The commitment of troops in Iraq means resources are not available for other crises that could arise. The pursuit of Osama bin Laden and the terrorists responsible for 9/11 and eager to inflict further damage on the United States has been sidelined. And the entire region has been thrown into even more turmoil than usual, which could well bring calls for further intervention to fix the problems created by previous interventions.

Whatever the course in the next few months, it is important for Americans to absorb the lesson that intervention into the affairs of other countries is justifiable only if core interests of the country and the safety of Americans at home is at stake. That was not the case in Iraq, and we are paying a fearful price for our eagerness to decide for others how their countries should be run.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Spoiler Bruins

Not that I'm one to gloat, but . . .

I went to UCLA and even played Freshman football (back when they still had Freshman football and those who didn't give in and quit after, as I remember, about three weeks of really grueling practice, were issued a uniform and, in my case, a seat at the end of the bench -- 165-pound guards didn't get much playing time except in blowouts, even back then). Those who know football history will get an idea of how long ago that was when I mention that we played Single-Wing rather than a T-formation.

So you can imagine how elated I am that UCLA managed to pull off what has to be the upset of the year by beating the mighty Trojans of USC. We've lost the last 7 to our crosstown rival (which has really been remarkable since Pete Carroll came to coach; you've got to respect what he's done, and having consecutive Heisman winners didn't hurt). The Bruins had their starting quarterback go down with an injury after a good start, and lost four in a row. But they regrouped and managed to defeat the team expected to beat them handily and go on to play Ohio States in the BCS (Bollixed Championship Series)championship game.

Back in the day, this was an excellent crosstown rivalry, with the outcome of the game unpredictable no matter what kind of record the two teams had -- and almost always a close, hard-fought, well-played game on both sides. That tradition took a bit of a beating during the Peter Carroll era at USC; his teams were always so good. Last year they embarrassed us 66-19.

If this game revives the tradition of the UCLA-USC games always being at least competitive, I will be pleased -- but not more pleased than I am tonight.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Futile meeting

Here's a link to the editorial I did for the Register yesterday on the Bush-Maliki meeting in Jordan. The gist is that, as Larry Diamond, a scholar at the Hoover Institution who spent time with the Coalition Provisional Authority and wrote an excellent book ("Squandered Victory") about post-invasion Iraq, said to me on the phone, The meeting is a bit like "dancing on the decks of the Titanic as the ship is sinking."

One of our readers called me this morning to see if I was cheered up by al-Maliki's declaration that the Iraqis will be ready to take over -- if they get more helicopters, artillery, other weaponry and training -- by June of next year. I said I remain skeptical, especially given Bush's declaration that a "graceful exit" is not in the cards. [Does that mean that he's for a graceless exit, or is subliminally acknowledging that we've bungled so badly that a graceful exit is pretty much impossible?]

Bush, like many intellectually incurious people, is powerfully stubborn, and seems to mistake ignoring the advice of people who know more than he does for virtue, not folly.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Poor Victor

It must be traumatic for the classical philosopher of war. Victor Davis Hanson, the central California farmer and classicist (his book on the Peloponnesian wars is actually rather good) who aspires to be the philosopher of our current wars is almost visibly distraught in a recent post on National Review Online.

Dear Victor is afraid that if we fail in Iraq "it could be worse than that the perception of impotence that galvanizes our enemies. If we lost in Iraq and fled, it would not be the perception at all, but the reality of power that would be gone, in the sense that the United States would never in our lifetime intervene successfully again on the ground abroad -- convinced that it would inevitably lose.

"I think we are also close to seeing the permanent end of any Anglo-American military collaboration. And there would be legitimate questions raised also whether the U.S. military could win any future war -- given the knowledge that, barring some instantaneous victory, the American public would not allow it the time or latitude to destroy its enemies."

Maybe a gent who imagines himself a historian might have through some of these complications before cheerleading for a war of choice -- not necessity -- in a country with artificial borders imposed by British colonialists, divided by religion and ethnicity, with all kinds of pent-up resentments and hostilities suppressed by Saddam's tyranny. I only wrote a two-parter on Iraqi history before the war based on a few weeks of research, but it appears that I knew more about Iraqi history and the baggage it would bring post-war than any of the conservative and neoconservative cheerleaders.

If I believed Hanson was right I might almost be rooting for a clearcut U.S. defeat. But the poor dear is clearly hyperventilating. We've been in Iraq now longer than the U.S. was in military action in World War II, and there's no sign that the administration has the slightest idea how to bring it to a successful conclusion. So spare us the anguish over the public demanding an "instantaneous" victory.

After Iraq, however it ends, the U.S. military will still be the most powerful on earth by orders of magntitude. I hope we'll be a little more cautious about thinking we can bring instant democracy to countries with no tradition of democracy, but I suspect such hubris will hardly disappear.

Stephen Hadley's memo

Here's a link to the full text of National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley's Nov. 8 memo written after his trip to Iraq. Again, this is a NYT story, so it will probably cost to get access to the full text in a couple of days.

It's a little more overtly critical of Maliki than I had gleaned from reading the NYT story yesterday, but still carefully and conditionally worded enough to justify continuing support of Maliki, which from the Bush-Maliki conference of today was probably the preordained policy anyway. But there's still not much that wasn't being worried about in public at the time. It does suggest that from the U.S. perspective Iraq is still semi-sovereign rather than fully sovereign, as even Bush is careful to claim in public. It suggests several ways the U.S. might intervene in "internal" Iraqi politics to get the outcome the U.S. government desires.

The money quote is right at the top: "We returned from Iraq convinced we need to determine if Prime Minister Maliki is both willing and able to rise above the sectarian agendas being promoted by others. Do we and Prime Minister Maliki share the same vision for Iraq? [which is what, from the U.S. perspective? I'd really like to know, but the generalities from the president are not especially enlightening.] If so, is he able to curb those who seek Shia hegemony or the reassertion of Sunni power? The ansers to these questions are key in determining whether we have the right strategy in Iraq."

Some have suggested that this was a "friendly leak" from within the administration, to put Maliki on notice that the U.S. was scrutinizing him carefully. I have no inside information, but I wouldn't be surprised.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

New Lebanon war?

Just a little heads-up. I talked to someone I consider a fairly reliable source who just returned from several weeks in Israel studying their counter-terrorism tactics and history. He says almost everybody there, especially in the military, expects there will be another military clash with Hezbollah in Lebanon by this coming summer. I hope not, but I wouldn't be surprised.

Bush trip and Hadley's memo

President Bush's meeting with Iraqi prime minister Maliki has been postponed 12 hours. At this point there's no really reliable news as to why, but rumor is that Maliki is peeved that a Nov. 8 memo from Bush National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley that is not all that flattering about Maliki was leaked to the New York Times.

If you want the reasonably full story on the memo, please click on this link fairly soon. In a couple of days the NYT will make you pay for the story.

As reported, the memo is hardly an unvarnished putdown or in fact much of anything that deserves to be classified Secret. It's a reasonably candid report on a trip to Iraq by Hadley and some NSC staff that included a face-to-face with Maliki. It expresses doubt as to whether Maliki can really control the chaos that Iraq has become, but practically anyone who was paying attention had those doubts. Money quote:

"His intentions seem good when he talks to Americans, and sensitive reporting suggests he is trying to stand up to the Shia hieraarchy and force positive change. But the reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action."

Whenever the meeting does take place, the key question the leaders should confront honestly (if either is capable of that even in private) is whether there's a solid chance that a shift in strategy or the addition of a few more U.S. troops (many more seems unrealistic unless they start moving them from Europe or Okinawa) will lead to substantial improvement in six months or a year. If not, it's time to begin the American withdrawal, crow that we got rid of Saddam and put Iraq in the hands of Iraqis, and approach the next crisis/opportunity with a little more humility about the American capacity to set things right in other parts of the world through the magic of the military.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Journey Toward Justice

I had an interesting meeting last week with Dennis Fritz, author of the new book, "Journey Toward Justice." Dennis is one of more than 100 prisoners released in the past few years, most of them with the help of Barry Scheck's Innocence Project, because DNA evidence proved them not guilty.

Dennis served 12 years in the Oklahoma state pen for a murder he didn't commit. The cops looked at him briefly in connection with a 1982 murder, then pretty much left him alone for five years. When nothing else panned out, they came after him and an acquaintance and got them convicted. Dennis says he never lost faith that he would be exonerated eventually, but it was a long time coming. John Grisham also has a book out focusing on Dennis's co-defendant Ron Williamson, and has written a cover blurb for "Journey Toward Justice." I think Dennis's book is more interesting, and it certainly covers the legal issues more thoroughly.

As I wrote in a blurb for the book, this case should make it clear that people serving on juries should take the instructions that you shouldn't vote for a conviction unless there is no "reasonable doubt" very seriously, even if other jurors pressure them. I found out something about Dennis's case that he didn't know until just a few weeks ago.

A single juror doubted his guilt and was holding out until other jurors told her that if she voted to convict they would vote against the death penalty. Then when the penalty phase came up, the other jurors were all for the death penalty. But this time, having been double-crossed, she did hold out, and Dennis was sentenced to life. If that one juror hadn't let her conscience guide her, he might very well have been executed before DNA evidence proved him innocent. Think about that if you ever serve on a jury. You have an absolute right to let your conscience be your guide, and there's nothing they can do to you if you hold out or hang the jury.

Monday, November 27, 2006

What hurricane season?

Pardon me if I indulge in a little shadenfreude when the experts are wrong-wrong-wrong. But do you remember all the experts early this summer who predicted this would be one of the most devastating and destructive hurricane seasons on record? And those who tied more intense hurricanes to global warming?

Well, they were wrong, weren't they? Instead of being one of the most destructive hurricane seasons on record it has turned out to be one of the mildest.

I'm fascinated at those who are so eager to tie something like hurricanes -- which so far as I know have a strong cyclical pattern that undoubtedly overpowers whatever modest contribution global warming might make -- to global warming. I'm a modest skeptic on global warming being stronger this time around than longer warming and cooling cycles we have seen throughout history. But maybe it's so. But to jump in and tie it to severe hurricanes -- something that's easily falsifiable and in this case clearly falsified -- is almost astonishing. Sure, they can count on most of the media not to point out just how wrong they were, but do they think nobody will notice?

It only confirms that most of those most concerned about global warming -- though they might turn out to be right -- have only a tenuous hold on even the most elementary of scientific concepts.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Why wait to withdraw?

Here, of course, from my recent column for Antiwar.com, is my preference: American withdrawal from Iraq as quickly as possible. I think I went through most of the objections and answered or neutralized them reasonably well.

Here's a particularly noxious one, invoked all the time by Bush & Co: that American withdrawal would immediately make Iraq a safe haven for international terrorism. A lot of things could happen after a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, including civil war. But whatever emerged would almost certainly not be something like the Taliban in Afghanistan, eager to provide refuge for al-Qaida and other international terrorists. In fact, given that al-Qaida is generally Sunni in persuasion and the majority in Iraq are Shia, Iraq might very well become one of the unfriendliest places places on earth for al-Qaida.

That's not the guaranteed outcome, and I have no crystal ball. But Iraq as an effective safe haven for international terrorism is one of the least likely results of a U.S. withdrawal.

What now, Iraq?

Sorry for not posting for a while. For some reason Thanksgiving seems like the busiest week of the year for me --basically trying to get five days' writing done in three days. Anyway, here's a link to my most recent piece for the Sunday Commentary section of the Register. It suggests that the current "strategy" of doing more of the same in Iraq is a bit like the definition of insanity -- doing the same thing over and over, again and again, and expecting different results.

I outline the alternatives that seem most "live" and assess the chances for change.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

A giant of liberty dies

Although I first met Milton Friedman's son, David, in 1967, in Washington, D.C. -- he used to go down to Dupont Circle almost every night to try to convince the hippies that if they were consistent about the values and preferences they espoused they should be free-market libertarians -- I didn't meet Milton Friedman until sometime in the 1980s, probably at a Pacific Research Institute seminar or banquet. After that I saw him a few times at Hoover Institution events, and usually had a few minutes with him one on one. Those were some of my most charished memories.

Milton Friedman looked you in the eye, with that little twinkle in his, and listened to questions, then answered them in a way that you knew he had really listened and understood -- sometimes including implications you hadn't thought of. When he was talking to you he treated you as if yopu were the only person in the world at that particular moment. In fact the only person for him was his wonderful wife Rose, with whom I also had the privilege of speaking a few times, trying to reassure her that the freedom movement would live on after her generation got old and was no longer able to contribute much anymore.

I guess Milton's 1962 book, "Capitalism and Freedom," along with Hayek's "Road to Serfdom," was a major contributor (for better or worse) to my intellectual and ideological development. Hayek taught a class at UCLA when I was there. Having read his book I knew he was a big deal, but since he taught (as I remember) a graduate seminar I couldn't take his class and thought it would be presumptuous just to drop into his office and say I would just like to meet him. I've regretted that decision ever since, as the occasion to meet him never arose again.

Lesson: If you want to meet somebody you admire -- or who just interests you -- take advantage of opportunities, even if it means being a tad pushy. The person will probably be flattered. Of course, being impolite should not be an option.

Milton Friedman's discipline was economics but his passion was liberty. He was still writing things, and writing them well, at age 93. May we all be so coherent at that age. He will be missed.

Monday, November 13, 2006

What will the Democrats do?

Here's a link to my piece in the Orange County Register's Sunday Commentary section on the Democrats' plans for next year. In a word or two, expect all kinds of investigations into Bush administration mistakes, including about the war and pre-9/11, but not much in the way of substantive policy proposals. Even though President Bush expressed interest in working with the Democrats on immigration reform, I'd be surprised to see anything approaching the comprehensive get done.

Rove part of Republican denial?

Here's more evidence that Republicans are in denial about the importance of the Iraq war in their defeat last Tuesday. Speaking to Time magazine's Mike Allen, Karl Rove, the president's political guru, explained that he and the president missed the forecast because, "The profile of corruption in the exit polls was bigger than I'd expected. Abramoff, lobbying, Foley and Haggard added to the general distaste that people have for all things Washington, and it just reached critical mass."

Responding to the fact that the polls also showed discontent with the war, he took solace in the victory of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman over avowed anti-war candidate Ned Lamont, and concluded that "Iraq does play a role, but not the critical, central role."

Rove may be right that there's not a consensus for an immediate pullout. But he's whistling in the dark if he doesn't think the war was a -- and probably the -- major factor in his party's defeat.

On the other hand, I talked to a Republican insider in Washington today who told me all the Republicans he talks to are fully aware of the importance of the war in last Tuesday's results, and statements like Rove's are strictly for the press releases. Fine, but what's wrong with press releases that reflect the truth?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Buchanan to be honored

Don Boudreaux, chairman of the economics department at George Mason University, has announced in his daily e-mail that James M. Buchanan, the Nobel economist who is also at GMU, is among the recipients of the 2006 White House National Humanities Medal. As Don put it,"no living econbomist has done as much as has Jim to ground economics in the humanities -- to show that economics, properly and wisely done, is not a tool for social engineers but the core of the science of human society.

Here's the Washington Post story on the award. And here's a link to what Don calls "the most insightful one-page article ever written in the social sciences."

There's something wrong with the Register's Web site just now, so I can't post the link to my review of James Buchanan's latest book, "Why I, Too, Am not a Conservative." Later. Suffice it to say I recommend it highly. Many people who think they are conservatives could benefit from understanding it.

Republicans in denial?

I've heard various Republicans talk about how they lost the election in large part because they forgot they were supposed to be the party of limited government and once they were in power -- especially once their party controlled both the legislative and executive branches -- they went on a wild spending spree.

It's nice to see that degree of self-criticism, but I think most Republicans are still avoiding coming to terms with just how large a factor the Iraq war was in their ignominious defeat. Newt Gingrich yesterday, for example, said that if Bush had fired Rumsfeld two weeks before, the Republicans would still control the Congress.

I don't think so.

Bush might even have been right to suggest that it would have been seen as a purely political, election-oriented move -- as if dumping him the day after getting trounced in an election wasn't seen as political -- and that it would have backfired electorally.

I'm persuaded, however, that while spending like drunken sailors -- er, sorry, that cliche is a gross insult to drunken sailors, who are at least spending their own money -- was a factor in losing the peoples' confidence, it wasn't nearly as big a factor as the war. Until the Republicans come to terms with that and start rethinking foreign policy, they're going to have a hard time regaining confidence.

The trouble is, all too many Republicans really, really like war and the aggressive foreign policy that leads to war. So long as that's true -- remembering that the Democrats are no great shakes on the issue from a libertarian, realist or constitutionalist point of view -- they don't deserve support.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Daddy to the rescue

Many of us have been wondering for quite a while whether Bush 41 would step in to save Bush 43 from his own foolishness. As a father I can understand the reluctance. You want your children to step out on their own, to be self-reliant, to be their own people. But sometimes, even when they have become chronological adults, the temptation to step in when they do something really off-the-wall can be overwhelming. When your son is president of the United States and is harming the country and the party, it can seem like a necessity.

The senior Bush has said since Dubya was electred that he doesn't interfere and he doesn't offer advice unless asked. And there has long been a sense that Dubya was in some ways rebelling against the old man. Bush senior didn't like Don Rumsfeld much back in the 1970s and he probably doesn't like him much now. But the Bushlet nominated him and stuck with him through all kinds of criticism and calls for his resignation. (Here's an assessment from Karen Kwiatkowski, who served in the Pentagon for a couple of years under Rumsfeld before retiring from the Air Force.)

It has been obvious from Day One that many of Senior's people -- Brent Scowcroft most vocally -- were skeptical about the Iraq war, and it has seemed unlikely that Senior himself wasn't concerned. I had it from a good source -- and should have blogged Wednesday I guess, but work was pretty hectic that day -- that the resignation of Rumsfeld to be replaced by Gates was a Senior operation, initiated at least a week ago and overseen by Jim Baker, the longtime Bush family consigliere.

The question is whether this change will mean a change in policy. Gates has his own baggage -- Iran-Contra suspicions and all -- and he has mainly been a loyal family retainer. But if this was a rescue operation, it's likely the Iraq Study Group, headed by James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, will come up with something reasonably dramatic -- perhaps partition along sectarian/ethnic lines -- and the Bushlet will adopt it, saying this was what he had in mind all along.

Daddy's people

Election analysis

Here's a link to my latest column an Antiwar.com. The essence is that the election was about disenchantment with the war, but it will take a good deal of work by those who want to end the war before those election results are translated into action toward even winding it down.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Medical marijuana disappointment

Tuesday's election had several marijuana-related issues, and while the good folks at the Marijuana Policy Project remain relentlessly upbeat, the results were a little discouraging.

In South Dakota, which was passing a referendum to reverse a law passed by the legislature to make abortion virtually illegal, voters were not quite ready for medical marijuana. They rejected a ballot measure to authorize the medical use of marijuana by a narrow 52-48 percent margin. To be sure, Measure 4 faced intense opposition from the White House, the state attorney general and most of the state's political establishment. The pro campaign was not very well funded, so in a way coming this close is heartening. But medical marijuana initiatives have succeeded in other states, even against stiff opposition.

Fortunately, in the 11 states that have authorized the medical use of marijuana, polls still show strong support for the laws.

MPP supported an initiative in Nevada to permit the manufacture, distribution and sale of marijuana to adults 21 or older. It failed, 56-44, but for 44 percent of voters in any state to endorse outright legalization is encouraging. In Colorado local activists put Amendment 44 on the ballot to allow possesssion of up to one ounce. It lost 60-40. Again, 40 percent is impressive, but it's still a loss.

On the other hand, more modest proposals did rather better. Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Santa Monica in California approved measures to make marijuana possession the lowest law enforcement priority (something San Francisco did more than a decade ago -- buy my book for details), as did Missoula County in Montana and Eureka Springs, Arkansas. And several districts in Massachusetts approved non-binding policy statements from voters to permit possession of up to one ounce or possession for medical purposes with a doctor's recommendation.

MPP also points out that Nancy Pelosi, the incoming Speaker of the House, has been a backer of the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, which would order the feds not to go after patients in states with medical marijuana laws. And 20 active medical marijuana opponents in the House were defeated.

Maybe not so disappointing after all, but I would have loved to see success in South Dakota.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Lew Rockwell on rejecting war

Lew Rockwell, president of the Mises Institute, had a typically insightful piece noting that in the repudiation of the president that yesterday's election results represent, "the failed (no longer any dispute about that ) war on Iraq was the decisive issue at every level."

He notes that the economy is in reasonably good shape (by conventional measures), there is no draft, and few Americans have family members or even know anyone at risk in Iraq, yet Americans voted against the war and did so during a midterm election, where national issues are seldom dispositive. Here's Lew:

"It seems that a certain impulse toward idealism still can make the margin of difference. It's not only about economic interest. Issues of peace and justice and truthfulness really do matter, even now. Ideas and not interests alone can still change the course of history, even in an age of cynical democracy in which buying and selling votes is said to be what matters."

We'll see about changing history. I suspect the Democrats will move cautiously on the war, at least at first, except for some welcome investigations. But any movement toward disengagement is welcome. And maybe we'll even see the beginnings of a debate on more fundamental aspects of foreign policy.

Santorumism goes down

I must confess to a special pleasure that the sanctimonious little twit Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania lost. He is the worst of the breed of Big Government Conservatives, not only wanting the government in peoples' bedrooms but also endorsing almost every federal welfare program that holds out the false hope of helping the poor or beefing up families.

Here's a recent piece by Laurence M. Vance, who actually read Santorum's book, "It Takes a Family," which I haven't brought myself to do yet. Vance is the kind of evangelical Christian who not only doesn't want the government to use other peoples' taxes to promote his religion, but believes excessive contact with politics demeans and cheapens Christianity. Perhaps that persuasion will grow in the wake of the election.

Anyway, Vance checked Santorum out with The New American's congressional rating service, which emphasizes constitutionalism (Ron Paul generally scoress 100). In the four ratings for the 109th Congress Santorum got 60, 20, 22 and 70. Not exactly sterling.

It's so easy to be a "compassionate conservative" with other peoples' money. But it's consistent for Santorum, who thinks the government needs to do a lot of supervision of us wayward Americans, and actually said that the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" was unfortunate because it had gotten America in a lot of trouble. He seems to instinctively distrust freedom, and the fact that so generally sensible a person as Peggy Noonan actually wrote a column saying she would miss him if he lost says something exceedingly unattractive about modern "conservatism."

Checks and balances

The Democratic victory for control of congress is a big boost for the idea of checks and balances -- and a significant repudiation of the war in Iraq. This wasn't necessarily clear at first, but as the Democratic margin in the House increased and as exit polls showed the Iraq war as the top priority for so many voters, it became increasingly obvious.

With the commission bill the United States moved to the verge of being a police state, repudiating at least in significant part the Great Writ of habeas corpus that has protected people in English-speaking countries from being imprisoned arbitrarily and without charges for some 800 years. I don't know if Democratic majoritie(s) -- the Senate is still uncertain as of this writing -- will be moved to reconsider that bill, or if the election results will embolden the courts. But the American people let the political establishment know that they have had enough of unitary government.

Does that mean gridlock? If so, how glorious! A government incapable of undertaking major initiatives from either end of the sometimes bogus political "spectrum" is a government less capable of hurting the people. The economy thrived under divided government during the 1990s and most of the 1980s. Bring it on!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Big Senate night for Dems?

This is from Doug Ireland, who claims to have a spy among the major network analysts who has access to the hermetically sealed exit poll results. The usual caveats about exit polls apply, mainly that they're polls, not actual votes, and historically they have overstated the Democratic votes, although the pollsters say they have corrected to eliminate that bias. We'll see.

Anyway, this is out on the Net, so I see little reason not to pass it along, even though it might or might not comport with the actual vote.

"RHODE ISLAND: D-53, R-47
VIRGINIA D-52, R-47
ARIZONA D-46, R-50
CONNECTICUT Lieberman up 4 points
FLORIDA D-62, R-36
MISSOURI D-50, R-48
NEW JERSEY D-50, R-46
NEW YORK D-68, R-30
OHIO D-57, R-42
PENNSYLVANIA D-57, R-42
MARYLAND D-53, R-46
MONTANA D-50, R-48
My network analyst suggests that the Missouri Senate race is definitely too close to call, and that Montana could yet tighten considerably."

Here's the link

Sorry, I forgot the link to John Fund's piece. Here it is.

Election-night crutches

Here's an interesting piece in today's Wall Street Journal that may be helpful in trying to dope out what it all means a few minutes ahead of the professional pundits. It's an hour-by-hour guide to when polls close in various states from by old acquaintance John Fund -- I had dinner with him last time I was in NYC but that was about six years ago.

He has Indiana and Kentucky closing at 6:00 EST (my recent check says 7:00). If the Republicans are losing the 2nd (Chocola), 8th (Hostetler, probably already lost) and 9th (Sodrel) in Indiana it could be a long night for the GOP. If Republicans lose the 3rd (Northrup) and 4th (Davis) in Kentucky, start roling the term "Speaker Pelosi" around on your tongue.

The three seats in Connecticut where Republicans are vulnerable are also key. And check Florida 22. Virginia closes at 7:00 so that should give us a preliminary idea of how the Allen-Webb contest is going and (maybe) how the struggle to control the Senate will play out.

I talked to Ted Carpenter, Cato's foreign-affairs guy this morning, and we got onto the topic of the election. He lays no claim to being a U.S. election specialist, but he expects the Democrats to gain 35 House seats because of discontent over the Iraq war. I'm not quite so bold.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Reference at LewRockwell.com

I was pleased to see Charles Featherstone, writing at LewRockwell.com, referenced my column last week on Antiwar.com. I bounced off a piece by Spencer Ackerman in the New Republic, which noted that conservatives have reverted to a pattern from the Vietnam era -- blaming the failure to win on antiwar critics and a failure of "will" back home.

Money quote from myself: "In brief, they [war supporters] have shifted from emphasizing the prospects for victory to warning about the dangers of defeat -- and placing the blame for possible defeat not on conditions on the ground or the wisdom of the war itself but on a lack of will to win among strategic elites back home. We're losing not because the furue of Iraq is not, or should not be. America's to dictate, but because critics of the war, and even of the administration's prosecution of the war, are sapping the will to fight brutally enough to win."

Featherstone endorsed the idea and took it a step further, arguing that "This is magical thinking. To believe that doubting the regime is the cause of that regime's military failure is akin to believing that harboring bad throughts about someone is the cause of their misfortune should misfortune arise."

Thanks for noticing the piece, Charles.

Iraqi independence

Last weekwas a fairly significant week in Iraq, and not just because of the verdict rendered on Saddam Hussein, about which more later. Probably more significant was the decision by the United States, in response to a request from Iraqi prime minister Maliki, to remove American checkpoints from the streets of Baghdad on Tuesday. U.S. military commanders seemed surprised by the request but complied -- even though they were in the midst of a concerted search for a U.S. Iraqi-American soldier who had been kidnapped, probably by insurgent forces connected with or sympathetic to Moqtada al-Sadr, who is one of Maliki's political backers.

Now maybe this means that the Iraqi government is really developing a certain independence from the U.S. occupiers. Or maybe it means the U.S. complied with the request to help create a sense of independence. Certainly Maliki has been stressing his growing desire for independence, including letting an aide leak a report of a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad, where he told Khalilzad he was "a friend of the United States, but not America's man in Iraq."

If the Iraqi government is calling the shots in Iraq, even standing up to the U.S., perhaps that's a good thing. If so, however, doesn't that mean it will soon be time for the U.S. to pull its troops out of Iraq and let the Iraqis handle things, even if it means a bit of chaos for a while?

The fact that Iraqis tried Saddam Hussein, in a trial that was far from perfect, but perhaps the most transparent public trial in recent Middle East history, is another important sign. We can expect some violence from the Sunnis when the U.S.-Iraqi curfew is lifted. But the Iraqis -- who ran the country for thousands of years before the United States was born -- should be capable of running things without Uncle Sam pretty darn soon.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Appearance report

I got through my appearance for the Brandeis University National Women's Committee, Laguna Hills Chapter rather nicely. The committee, whose central purpose is to support the Brandeis University library, holds monthly meetings and invites speakers four times a year.

I had the opportunity to to explain that the Register's editorial pages re separate from the news pages, that the editorial pages are rooted in a philosophy that holds indivudal liberty to be the most important political principle, and that it's not the same as being conservative, as many believe.

I explained how our philosophy led us to oppose the Iraq war from the outset, going into some detail on the differences between preemptive (justifiable) and preventive (almost never justifiable) war, and finally got to the stated topic, whether the election Tuesday will be a refenedum on the war. I suggested it would be if the Democrats win big, not just taking a House majority by a seat or two, but gaining 25 or more seats on the Republicans (15 needed to gain the majority.

Laguna Woods being a retirement community, the audience was mostly fairly elderly, mostly female. The Q&A session was lively, with a lot of viewpoints expressed and many people suitably skeptical about our government -- as an institution, not necessarily just an administration -- being able to much of anything right. All in all an enjoyable experience. Contact me at abock@ocregister.com if you want to book me as a speaker.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

About Kerry

As I wrote for tomorrow's edition of the Register, John Kerry is proving to be the gift that keeps on giving -- to the Republicans.

Maybe it was intended to be a joke aimed at Bush or maybe it was a little of Kerry's subconscious seeping out. Either way it was a disaster.

Consider what he actually said: "Education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't you get stuck in Iraq." On Imus this morning he said (click here for video) it was supposed to be "you get us stuck in Iraq. Just ask Bush."

Give him the benefit of the doubt, but even that is not especially funny and is in fact rather mean-spirited. Bush's problem is not lack of education -- he has an MBA after all -- but incuriosity and stubbornness. Kerry's comment, if that's what he meant to say, reflects a thoroughly unearned sense of superiority that most people found troubling about him last time he ran for national office. If it came out of his subconscious, it suggests the possibility that he's in a bit of a time warp, stuck in the Vietnam era when people who didn't keep up their grades were vulnerable to being drafted, whereas it's an all-volunteer army now.

Either way, it gave the Republicans, who richly deserve to get trounced this election, a chance to recast it as a replay of Bush v. Kerry. Even two years later, with all the chaos in Iraq and even after Katrina, I wouldn't be surprised if more people find Kerry repugnant than find Bush repugnant.

So Rush Limbaugh hurt the Republicans last week with his over-the-top comments about Michael J. Fox -- and his decision to keep harping on the topic becauyse like Bush he can never admit he was wrong and just shut up. And Kerry hurts the Democrats this week because he's such a thin-skinned privileged spoiled brat that he can never admit he was wrong and shut up.

Both parties richly deserve to suffer. Too bad they make voters and other Americans suffer along with them.

Speaking date

I will be out and about tomorrow, November 2, specifically to speak in the morning for the Brandeis University Women's Committee, Laguna Hills Chapter. It will be at 9:30 in the morning (refreshments), with the speech at 10:00, in Laguna Woods Village, Clubhouse Five. Come in through Gate 9 off of El Toro Rd.

The topic, picked a little more than a month ago, is "Will the Election be a Referendum on the Iraq War?" I think it will be to some extent, although strength of it being a single dominant issue is vitiated by conservative disgust with Bush on spending and big government issues and the Foley page boy scandal.

For more detail on what I thought a few days ago, here's a link to the column I did last week for antiwar.com. Of coursethings have been complicated by subsequent developments, especially John Kerry's foot-in-mouth incident.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006