Thursday, May 31, 2007

Vic Gold laments the GOP

This isn't a new story any more, but it's still worth noting. Longtime GOP operative and writer -- he's really quite funny quite often -- Vic Gold is one of the more recent conservative stalwarts to lament the sad state of the GOP under Bush and Cheney. Vic is hardly a Johnny-come-lately -- he was a press assistant to Barry Goldwater and wrote the official bios of Bush and Cheney for the 2001 inaugural program and co-wrote a satirical novel with Lynne Cheney beack in the '80s -- so his conservative credentials are hardly suspect.

He has written a new book, "Invasion of the Party Snatchers: How the Holy Rollers and the Neo-Cons Destroyed the GOP." In it he reportedly laments that "Under Bush and Cheney ... the GOP has moved away from the principles of small government, prudent foreign policy and leaving people alone to live their private lives -- all views Gold associates with his hero, Goldwater."

Example: "For all the Rove-built facade of his being a 'strong' executive, George W. Bush has been, by comparison to even hapless Jimmy Carter, the weakest, most out of touch president in modern times. Think Dan Quayle in cowboy boots." On Cheney he is even harder: "A vice president in control is bad enough. Worse yet is a vice president out of control." Gold thinks Cheney concealed his streak of paranoia and megalomania even from friends like him, but it came out when he attained high office and felt no need to conceal it any more.

Iraq war growing more unpopular

Here's another reason I'm not as upset as some are at the Democratic Congress "giving in" to Bush on troop funding. According to the latest NYT/CBS poll, more Americans now view the war negatively than at any time since it began.

Specifically, 61 percent of us say we should have stayed out, and 76 percent say things are going badly there-- including 47 percent who say things are going very badly. Bush's approval ratings are at 30 percent, with disapproval at 63 percent.

Back in December 2003 64 percent of Americans "said the United States did the right thing in taking military action in Iraq and 28 percent said the United States should have stayed out. The current numbers are nearly reversed, with 35 percent saying the United States did the right thing and 61 percent saying the country should have stayed out."

Unless I and most military experts are wrong and things are improved substantially by September, those disapproval numbers will be even higher, and Republicans will be wanting to see Iraq in the rearview mirror by the 2008 elections. It takes time for the U.S. to change course, but we're doing it.

Andrew Bacevich

I did call Andrew Bacevich's office today -- well, I guess it's officially yesterday now -- and left a message of condolence on his phone message machine, telling him to return the call only if he really felt like it. He didn't. If I do talk to him I will report unless he's uncomfortable with the idea.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Organ situation

A number of people are professing to be shocked, truly shocked, that a Dutch TV show has been built around a terminal patient who during the course of the show will get her kidney when she dies. The producers say they have done it to highlight the shortage of donors in the Netherlands. But folks like Nightline think the premise is just so ... icky! ... and EU parliamentarians call it unethical and "wretched." Many have questioned whether it should be allowed to go on, which it apparently will.

Almost nobody has entertained or begun to come to grips with what is considered an even more apparently icky idea -- that the problem of organ donor shortages c0ould best be alleviated by allowing a market to develop in donor organs. Selling organs was outlawed in the U.S. in the 1980s -- a bill sponsored by the Congressman Al Gore -- and the shortage, utterly predictable, almost immediately ensued. But apparently our politicians, who are responsible for the shortage by outlawing the utterly reasonable idea of letting terminally ill people sell their organs for their or their heirs' benefit, whould rather watch black markets develop and deplore imaginative TV shows than allow the oh-so-horrendous idea of buying and selling body parts to have a chance.

This attitude refrects a deep-seated hostility to buying and selling, to the exchange of money in certain situations that I can't begin to explain, but it is profoundly sick and profoundly damaging to societal health.

Quote of the Day

"Useless laws weaken the necessary laws." Montesquieu

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Cyberwar in Estonia

As an NYT story puts it, "When Estonian authorities began removing a bronze statue of a World War II-era Soviet soldier from a park in this bustling Baltic seaport [Talinn] last month, the expected violent street protests by Estonians of Russian descent."

(Estonia has a lot of Russians because of a conscious policy by the Soviets when they controlled the country -- a byproduct of the Hitler-Stalin pact -- of "Russifying" the Baltic states by encouraging and subsidizing Russians to move there, with the idea of overwhelming the natives by sheer numbers and hopefully wiping out the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian national identities. Ethnic Estonians, now that the country is independent --and incredibly market-oriented and increasingly prosperous -- resent the ethnic Russians and haven't always been completely fair to them, but they can't just eliminate them.)

The other protests, however, came in attacks on the Internet, to which Estonians are incredibly attuned. A data flood into the tiny country logged "the Web sites of the president, the prime minister, Parliament and other government agencies, staggering Estonia's biggest bank and overwhelming the sites of several daily newspapers." The Estonians are sure the Russians did it -- they say one site used to launch attacks belongs to an official in Putin's Russian administration -- but the Russian government denies involvement.

Is this the new face of warfare?

The authorities anticipated the attacks and thought they had set up effective firewalls, but the attackers were persistent and clever and had money. They used distributed denial of service attacks and infiltrated computers around the world with software bots, making them unwitting allies. At one point "The 10 largest assualts blasted streams of 90 megabits of data a second at Estonia's networks, lasting up to 10 hours each. That is a data load equivalent to downloading the entire Windows XP operating system every six seconds for 10 hours."

Estonian experts held off much of the attack, but it was still damaging. Members of Parliament were without e-mail for four days.

Such cyber attacks have already become a feature of political tensions and disputes. Paslestinians regularly attack Israeli Web sites, etc. Hard to know where this will go.

Democrats and earmarks

One of the reasons put forward for the Republican loss in November was their enthusiastic embrace of "earmarks," or pork-barrel spending -- pet projects quietly slipped into spending bills to benefit some constituent or special interest. The practice, always around to some extent and always sleazy, increased when the Republicans, supposed guardians of fiscal responsibility, held both houses of Congress.

With the Democrats in charge, however -- even after a supposed "reform" that requires the authors of earmarksto be identified publicly -- the practice has only increased. Last year, when Republicans were in charge, a proposed water bill had 272 earmarks. This year's water bill, with Democrats in charge, has 446 earmarks in the Senate version -- and 692 in the House version.

Steve Slivinski of Cato predicted back in January that the reform of publicizing who was behind earmarks wouldn't work. To work there would have to be a presumption that congresscritters are capable of shame, and the record suggests they simply are not.

Andrew Bacevich's Grief

Here's a link to a heartbreaking piece by Andrew Bacevich, the Boston University professor and Vietnam veteran (who stayed in the Army and made a career of it before moving to academia). Andrew, a profoundly conservative gentleman, knew beforehand -- I talked to him a number of times -- that the war in Iraq was a mistake that would turn out badly. Now his son, 27, who followed the family tradition into the Army, has been killed in Iraq.

Two e-mails accused him, with his antiwar writings, of being responsible for his own son's death, "insisting that my public opposition to the war had provided aid and comnfort to the enemy." He notes that this kind of thinking "has become a staple of American political discourse, repeated endlessly by those keen to allow President Bush a free hand in waging his war."

Andrew does not repent: "What exactly is a father's duty when his son is sent into harm's way? Among the many ways to answer that question, mine was this one: As my son was doing his utmost to be a good soldier, I strove to be a good citizen," trying to promote a critical understanding of U.S. foreign policy.

He is understandably angry, but not really at those who still believe in the war. "The people have spoken, and nothing of substance has changed. The November 2006 midterm elections signified an unambiguous repudition of the policies that landed us in our present predicament. But half a year later, the war continues, with no end in sight. Indeed, by sending more troops to Iraq (and by extending the tours of those, like my son, who were already there), Bush has signaled his complete disregard for what was once quaintly referred to as 'the will of the people.'"

As the father of two grown sons (neither of whom went into the military) I can hardly imagine the grief. I feel compelled to call Andrew tomorrow to offer whatever condolences I can.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Quote of the Day

"Liberty has never come from government. It has always come from the subjects of government. The history of liberty is the history of resistance. The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of government power, not the increase of it." -- Woodrow Wilson

Recent Lebanese violence

It seems likely that the recent violence in Lebanon, which began with clashes between the Islamist group Fatah al-Islam in a Plaestinian "refugee camp" (really a permanent settlement) north of Beirut and the Lebanese army, such as it is, has a great deal to do with the possibility that a U.N. tribunal might actually convene to determine just how culpable Syria was in the assassination two years ago of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

Discontent with Syria and international pressure following Hariri's murder led to Syria giving up what had been a virtual occupation of Lebanon and effective control over key elements of the Lebanese political class. Syria has not been happy with that outcome, and it welcomes even less the prospect of having a U.N. tribunal pin the blame for Hariri's assassination on Syria. The U.N. Security Council is to consider this week whether to constitute such a tribunal. Most Lebanese believe the recent violence -- which has spread to Beirut's luxury shopping districts -- is led or inspired by Syria and tied to the U.N. deliberations

More on the "war czar"

Here's a link to the piece I did last week for on the appointment of a "war Czar," which explains in more detail why I think the idea is bound to fail.

U.S.-Iranian talks

This is not a bad piece on today's talks between the U.S. and Iran on the security situation in Iraq. U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker says the two countries' goals in Iraq are roughly speaking similar, which is probably diplomatspeak for "lots of problems remain." Nonetheless the talks took place and were focused, as advertised, on Iraq. Whether they lead to future talks in which the possibility of diplomatic relations (an end to childishness?) is raised is admittedly dubious.

Memorial/Remembrance Day

Here's a link to the Register's editorial today on Memorial Day. It's appropriate to honor those who died in America's wars. But it is even more important to resolve that future wars wuill only be those that are defensible -- calculated realistically rather than in some mental fantasyland to advance freedom, and defensive in character rather than wars of aggression or conquest -- unlike the current war in Iraq.

"War czar" foolishness

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the idea of a "war czar" to oversee the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The key to me? The "war czar" will officially be an assistant in the National Security Advisor's office, with a staff of 11. With a staff of 11 he's going to whip recalcitrant bureaucracies into stepping up to support the war effort more effectively? I doubt it.

Immigration stirrings

As is hardly surprising, the immigration "compromise" hammered out by Democratic and Republican Senators has received condemnation from almost all sides. Even Peggy Noonan over at the Wall St. Journal has essentially adopted the Pat Buchanan position: Close the borders effectively until we have absorbed (and hopefully Americanized) the immigrants that have come in the last 20 years or so, though she mentions her personal admiration of immigrants she has met and her conviction that on belance they are enriching the country.

I do agree with one aspect of her column, her contention that "we should set ourselves to the Americanization of the immigrants we have. They haven't only joined a place of riches, it's a place of meaning. We must teach them what it is they've joined and why it is good and what is expected of them and what is owed. We stopped Americanizing ourselves 40 years ago. We've got to start telling the story of our country again." I don't know just how possible that is, though the story is still there and still inspiring. Who is the "we" that will teach "them?"

Meanwhile, there's fascinating news in the latest NYT/CBS poll. The poll didn't ask respondents about the bill itself, but did test most of its major provisions. Lo and behold, "large majorities expressed support for measures in the legislation ..."

Specifically, "two-thirds of those polled said illegal immigrants who had a good employment history and no criminal record should gain legal status as the bill proposes..." And "Two-thirds of Americans in the survey favored creating a guest worker program for future immigrants."

It looks a bit as if the political class is so polarized on immigration that no resolution is possible, even as most Americans favor a resolution that at least resembles the Senate compromise bill. I don't know if this apparent consensus will ever be effectively communicated to the political class, which has more invested in current positions than in future compromises.

As I've mentioned before, however, although this compromise is hardly what I would prefer in an ideal world (though the fact that a quarter of those polled in the NYT/CBS poll say "the United States should open its borders to all immigrants," essentially my position, is interesting but counterbalanced by the fact that a quarter think the borders should just be closed) it may offer the best hope of an imperfect but workable-for-the-moment resolution. Those who simply reject this compromise rather than trying to work with it are essentially casting a vote in favor of the status quo, which most of them say is unacceptable. Curious.

Ron Paul's relevance

Here's an interesting piece from the New Republic's Michael Crowley titled "The Surprising Relevance of Ron Paul." Crowley had already scheduled a meeting with Ron for the day after the South Carolina presidential debates, which made Ron something of a celebrity as well as a hate-figure among some Republicans:

"When Paul ambled through the door of a cheap Mexican joint on Capitol Hill last Wednesday, he hardly looked like a freshly minted celebrity. His slight frame, elfin face, and reserved persona suggest the doctor he used to be, not a politician. But Paul turned heads all the same. As he approached his table, a man seated nearby extended his hand with a broad smile and a hearty 'congratulations.' Paul explained that he had received a similar reception among his colleagues in the House. 'I've probably had ten people come up to me and compliment me -- including people I thought were war hawks," he said. 'It was a tremendous boost to the campaign.'"

Ten of 435 might not be much. But Crowley mentions that Paul won several instant polls, including one at the conservative NewsMax. Perhaps most important, however, was that "within a day of the debate, Paul's campaign had raised $100,000 -- about one-sixth of his entire haul for the first three months of 2007."

Now $100,000 in a day may not look like much compared to the millions Hillary, Rudy and Barack can raise. But if it is sustained, it should be enough to keep him in the race until close to the end, persistently raising questions about war and peace, about the consequences of an interventionist foreign policy. Based on my brief conversation with him at the Reagan Library "debate," that is the main reason he has put himself into the race. His presence just might turn a campaign that could have been about which candidate exuded the best version of empty macho posturing into one that is at least partially about ideas of policy and governance.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Quote of the Day

"It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong." -- Voltaire

For Remembrance Day

Here is Justine Nicholas, on, expressing something very close to the way I feel about Memorial Day, in a very sensitive way. The day is set aside to remember those who died in America's wars, and she suggests it be renamed Remembrance Day (Memorial is so abstract). Then she goes on to the inconvenient truth so many Americans are loathe even to consider, let alone acknowledge -- that almost all those who died in our wars died in vain. There's nothing inconsistent about pointing this out while at the same time honoring the potential of lives cut short, the honor and courage displayed by those who died, the individual sense of doing the right thing most soldiers have felt down through the centuries.

So pause at 3:00 p.m. tomorrow (as Congress has suggested) to remember those who have died -- and to make a silent vow that you will do what you can to keep this country from getting involved in future wars that are not truly defensive, that don't serve to protect or extend freedom, that cannot be justified under international law or common-sense morality, and that therefore lead to brave young men and women dying in vain.

"The Aviator," a business hero and libertarianism

Here's a fairly lengthy but continually interesting piece by Paul Cantor, English prof and pop culture expert, on the 2004 movie "The Aviator," in which Martin Scorsese directing and Leonardo DiCaprio starring managed to make Howard Hughes into something of a hero, if a flawed hero. As Cantor usually manages, the piece is full of insights, such as noting that the moneyed class from which Katerine Hepburn sprang was rather different from the one that produced Howard Hughes. Most fascinating about the film, however, is that it portrays a businessman as a hero, and one beaten down by the government, whereas most Hollywood movies have it the other way -- businessman as villain and government agent as hero.

I find it interesting that the film was Leonardo DiCaprio's dream -- and quite frankly, the first film in which he played where I began to take him the least bit seriously as an actor rather than just a pretty-boy. DiCaprio is notoroious for being something of an environmental militant and is generally viewed as fairly left-wing, as is Martin Scorsese. Yet together they made what Cantor describes as a fairly libertarian film (which accords with my memory, though I saw it only once). Fascinating phenomenon.

Suing instead of competing

Can anyone doubt that the practice of filing lawsuits sometimes gets out of hand? Carl's Jr. is suing Jack-in-the-Box over its TV ads. Seems Carl's has been pushing its Angus burger, and Jack decided to start using sirloin in one product. So one ad shows Jack pointing at the sirloin portion on one of those steer meat diagrams and an executive asks, "Can you show me where the Angus is?" and Jack waves vaguely in the direction of the anus and says "I'd rather not."

Angus, of course, is a breed of cattle, not a portion of the meat section, but then you knew that.

I don't especially like Jack's food -- though to be fair I haven't eaten there in years so I haven't tested the proposition lately -- but I enjoy the commercials. Carl's and Burger King (also sells Angus but doesn't seem to be in on the lawsuit yet) should lighten up, or we'll all be tempted to kick their Angus.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Raising the class-action bar

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the Supreme Court's decision Monday in an antitrust class-action lawsuit against the phone companies for conspiring not to compete after the bogus deregulation of 1996. In a 7-2 decisions written by Justice Souter, the court said that for such a lawsuit to go forward (it was brought by private attorneys rather than the government), there had to be some plausibility to allegations of conspiracy to constrain trade, not just a possibility.

The decision is likely to have impact beyond antitrust, making it more difficult to bring a range of lawsuits that require companies to open their books so opposing attorneys can do discovery and try to find something actionable. I think that's healthy, since many of those lawsuits are frivolous, or designed to be settled even though they have little merit, because defending them is more expensive than settling.

Attorneys can be heroes, but when they bring this kind of lawsuit they are not.

Bush gets his money

I'm not really disappointed, or as angry as some antiwar activists are, that Congress gave President Bush an Iraq-Afghanistan funding bill without timetables. It was eventually going to happen so long as Bush threatened to veto, and since he had discovered his veto pen on the last war funding bill there was every reason to expect him to use it again. The Democrats weren't going to get a veto-proof majority in either house, and they didn't want to be vulnerable to the charge that they were leaving troops in the field high-and-dry. The time may come when Congress does cut off the funds, but I suspect that public opinion isn't ready for it yet.

Despite understandable disppointment at this particular outcome, I think progress was made. The Democrats remembered that they won the majority largely because of growing opposition to the war, and their positions became a bit more radical as the debate went on and they didn't seem to pay any political price for at least talking about earlier and earlier withdrawal and more and more conditions on the effort. And the funding is only through September, when another reevaluation will take place, probably at a time when the American public is even more ready for this absurd war to be over.

By September, more Republicans are going to be ready to have Iraq in the rearview mirror rather than in the heeadlights as the 2008 election approaches. I suspect Bush won't end the war before he leaves office, unless something unlikely, like a stable Iraqi government and a lessening of insurgency and sectarian attacks occurs. He could be responsible for decimating the Republican Party for a generation.

Quote of the Day

"The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws." -- Tacitus

Sarkozy's challenge

Here's a link to a fairly extensive piece, originally run in Commentary, by Michel Gurfinkel, president of the Jean Jacques Rousseau Institute in Paris, on evidence of France's decline and the challenge Sarkozy, as France's new president, faces if he wants to revive France. Briefly, France is in the midst of a demographic upheaval -- the baby bust among traditional Europeans leads to a less-than-replacement rate, while Muslim immigrants are reproducing profusely -- an immigration shock, and the decline of stable families and thus much of the traditional French way of life. Combined with the sense of entitlement brought on by extensive welfare and work-rule benefits, along with slow economic growth, it makes for a not-so-pretty picture. The ENA graduates, who for the most part created the mess or stood by doing nothing, are the only people available to undo the mess.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Tod Mikuriya, R.I.P.

Tod Mikuriya, the Berkeley psychiatrist who may have done more than any other single medical person to restore to more general knowledge the medical uses of marijuana, or cannabis, died at his home Sunday of complications of cancer. He was 73. Anyone who has benefited from medicinal marijuana should be in mourning. Tod was an unrelenting advocate once he thought he had figured things out, and his eloquence and integrity made him the bane of narks everywhere.

I first heard of him when somebody gave me a copy sometime in the 1980s, of "Marijuana: Medical Papers," which Tod compiled way back in 1973. The 465-page book is a straight reprint, with some introductory commentary by Tod, of scientific articles in medical journals, beginning with W.B. O'Shaughnessy's pioneering 1839 paper written after he discovered cannabis being used medicinally while he was serving in India, through a paper in 1971 on the origins of the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. The book was eye-opening; utterly respectable doctors and scientists for more than 100 years had documented therapeutic uses of marijuana, debated the best ways for it to be administered, etc., etc., and the history had pretty much gone down a black hole after marijuana prohibition.

Tod got his medical degree at Temple University, then specialized in psychiatry. In 1967 he became director of nonclassified marijuana research for the National Institute of Mental Health Center for Narcotics and Drug Abuse. He left shortly thereafter when "it became clear they only wanted research into demaging effects, not helpful ones."

I first met Tod Mikuriya when he testified as a court-certified expert witness in Marvin Chavez's case in Orange County. With his deep voice and confident air, along with his obvious deep knowledge, he made sure everybody in the courtroom knew there were validated medicinal uses for cannabis, and went into some detail about its ameliorative effects on Marvin's ankylosing spondylitis.

I later interviewed him in his home in Berkeley when I was doing research for my book, "Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana," and devoted the last chapter to him, Dennis Peron and Marvin Chavez. He was warm and welcoming, and profoundly informative. I wish now that I had known then of his interest in choral music and madrigals; it would have been one more thing we had in common.

I am profoundly sad Tod Mikuriya is gone, and sadder still that he did not live to see his enlightened views on cannabis universally accepted. I suspect I'll have to live a good deal longer to see that happen, but I don't intend to die before that.

Brown will distance himself from Bush

Here's a link to the story I mentioned earlier about British prime minister-presumptive Gordon Brown, who vacations on Cape Cod (is that the real America?) and is said to know more about American politics than any previous British prime minister. Money quote:

"'His personal relations with Bush will be much cooler, and deliberately so,' said James Naughtie, a prominent BBC radio broadcaster who wrote a book about the relationship between Brown and Blair. 'He won't stand up and take Bush on in some crude way. But I would not be at all surprised if over the next six or nine months there is some collision and headlines here say relations with Washington have cooled. Brown knows that large numbers of people in this country would say, "At last!"'"

James Naughtie???

Brown is also said to be close to Americans from Ted Kennedy to Alan Greenspan to Paul Wolfowitz.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Surge through '08?

Congress can do what it wants -- which at this point is apparently to go ahead and approve troop financing without deadlines, since they can't overcome a presidential veto. But we probably knew more than a week ago, when this story ran, what the outcome will be.

The WashPost story was based on interviews with commanders on the ground in Iraq, and they all said the "surge" will have to go into Spring of next year before they can really assess it. Lt. Gen Raymond Odierno, day-to-day commander, said "The surge needs to go through the beginning of next year for sure," and "What I am trying to do is get until April so we can decide whether to keep it going or not."

Forget what official Washington -- people in both parties increasingly -- are saying, that September is the "drop dead" month when decisions will be made about whether to continue the surge or start drawing down troops. Those on the ground say next Spring, and I would be amazed if the Bushlet doesn't back them. Add to this the fact that tours of duty have been extended to 15 months, and 35,000 soldiers have been told they will likely be heading to Iraq -- by December! -- and I'm afraid the U.S. commitment is not going to end soon.

Can't say that I like it, but that's the way I read it.

The Other Guantanamo?

Here's a link to an excellent and troubling piece by one Eliza Griswold in the New Republic, about the Bagram Theater Internment Facility, or BTIF, at the Bagram airbase about 40 miles north of Kabul in Afghanistan. It includes some of the first photos of that facility to be published. According to the story, as of 2002, "interrogation tactics came to include beatings, anal violation with sharp objects, blows to the genitals, and 'peroneal' strikes (an incapacitating blow to the leg with a baton, a knee, or a shin). We know about these tactics because an internal Army investigation into two prisoner deaths was obtained by the New York Times."

Some of these practices have been reportedly curtailed, but as the facility has morphed from a temporary detention facility into something more permanent, troubling practices remain. Detainees have no access to lawyers (which Guantanamo prisoners now do to some extent) or the right to a review of their status.

Last month lawyers "pleaded two separate cases before the D.C. District Court, demanding that the justices review petititons of habeas corpus for Bagram detainees." If the court grants habeas, much more about Bagram may finally begin to see the light of day.

Condi to Russia

Wonder why Condoleezza Rice was heading to Russia a few days ago? Here's a hint from the International Herald Tribune a few days before that. Russian president Vladimir Putin, in the course of what seemed like a standard commemoration of the 62nd anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, said the following:

"We do not have the right to forget the causes of any war, which must be sought in the mistakes and errors of peacetime. ... Moreover, in our time, these threats are not diminishing. They are only transforming, changing their appearance. In these new threats -- as during the time of the Third Reich -- are the same contempt for human life and the same claims of exceptionality and diktat in the world."

That seems aimed at the United States (although it might not justify the headline IHT gave the story: "Putin likens U.S. foreign policy to that of Third Reich." Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies in Moscow, said it was meant to refer to NATO as well as the U.S.

As the IHT writes: "In a speech in Munich on Feb. 10 he [Putin] characterized the United States as 'one single center of power: One single center of force. One single center of decision making. This is the world of one master, one sovereign."

Putin may be doing some of this for domestic consumption. There is great frustration in Russia that Russia is no longer considered a major world power, and the Yeltsin-Putin era hasn't made it so. But whatever the reason, Putin is focused on criticizing the United States, on seeing the U.S. as a disrupter of peaceful patterns. That could be one reason Condi Rice took a trip to Russia; she probably won't be able to reassure Putin completely -- the Iraq war suggests there's something to Putin's "One single center of decision making." But Condi just might remind Putin, if she's willing to be frank enough, that the Iraq war has created a pretty subnstantial backlash against Bush and against neocon efforts to try to run the rest of the world for its own good.

Not leaving Las Vegas

Here we are still in Las Vegas for another day. It turns out that having our son Steve move all the way to Las Vegas has been more emotional than we expected. He went away to college five years ago, but that was only an hour away, an easy impulse trip. Las Vegas is only four to six hours (depending on traffic), but it's in another state and is not an impulse trip for us.

Steve will be helping out nephew Tom in his real estate-related business, at which he is doing very well (I find it kinda neat to have a nephew who has a bigger house than I will probably ever have.) But it's still emotional to be looking at an empty nest that really looks empty now. We've even taken over what used to be his bedroom and moved Jen's office into our old bedroom.

I have looked at newspapers and should get a few blogs done later tonight.

Quote of the Day

"The greatest challenge I can give you is to dare to be lonely." --R. Buckminster "Bucky" Fuller

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Britain to hasten withdrawal?

According to the London Daily Telegraph, the Bush administration believes that incoming British prime minister Gordon Brown will accelerate the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. There are plans now to reduce the number of British troops from around 7,000 to around 5,000, but no timetable. Tony Blair, during his recent visit to Washington, all but assured the Bushies that there would no substantial change in British policy regarding Iraq and the U.S.-U.K. "special relationship. But it should only be surprising if there were not a significant British pullaway from the Bush wars.

The Washington Post did a story May 11 headlined ("Brown May Loosen U.K. Ties to Bush," based on the fact of an "impromptu" meeting between Bush and Brown ((I can't get their search engine to work but I'll post the story in full when I'm able). British people across the political spectrum are ready to get their troops out of Iraq, and Brown will face plenty of pressure to take steps in that direction. He also undoubtedly believes that doing so sooner rather than later will cement his popularity and make the rest of his term politically easier.

Immigration reform

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the Senate "comprehensive" immigration reform proposal announced this week, with Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts as the lead Democrat and Arizona conservative Republican John Kyl as the lead Democrat. The administration supports this compromise, which has something to displease almost anybody.

The bottom line, however, is that if anti-immigration hardliners continue to refuse anything that can be defined as amnesty, and if immigration activists continue to balk at fairly heavy penalties and requirements for those now here illegally, they are effectively casting a vote for the status quo -- pretending we have an immigration policy and winking at violations because illegals are too important to the economy, which is chugging along with 4.5 percent unemployment.

Maybe the status quo is better than any imaginable reform -- except my own preference, which would be to lift all quotas and let the market decide how many foreign workers the economy really "needs" (which is politically not in the cards just now). But the status quo seems rather grim to me. This proposal would undoubtedly have unforeseen negative consequences, but it would almost certainly be preferable to the situation we have now.

Sic Semper Tyrannis

Here's a link to an excellent piece by Lew Rockwell of the Mises Institute. He writes about the original intentions of the founders, pointing out that if the constitution had invested the presidency with as much power as Bush wants to use, it would never have passed. "Fear of a powerful president was one of the main reasons that people were fearful of abandoning the Articles of Confederation, which had no executive to speak of."

The compromise the founders came up with was a hopeful one: "There would be a head of state, but he would be controlled by the legislature. In fact, controlling the president would be the main job of the legislature. The founders went this one better by refusing to invest much power in the central government. Instead, the powers were decentralized and belonged to the member states."

Contrast this original scheme with the current Congress. Forget that little tussle over deadlines and benchmarks. The House armed services committee just took a close look at the Bush defense budget proposal of $503.9 billion -- higher then the defense budget of all other nations in the world combinedm-- and after giving it the gimlet eye, passed out a budget of -- $503.8 billion. A few priorities were shifted around, but the final product includes money for a new aircraft carrier ($3.1 billion), a new nuclear submarine ($2.7 billion), two new destroyers ($3.4 billion), and 12 new F-35s ($2.4 billion).

These funds are exclusive of the costs of fighting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars -- just the inertia of iron triangles with vested interests in continuing to spend on Cold War priorities.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Renewing Old Europe

Here's a link to the piece I did last week for on prospects for renewing and/or reviving Old Eruope in the wake of Sarkozy's election in France. I like Sarkozy's spirit, but I suspect he won't be able to get much done, and he is still a trade protectionist. Nonetheless, changes are afoot in France as well as Britain and Germany, and the welfare states could become just a wee bit less constricting, the economies a little less stodgy.

Muzzling Ron Paul

Here's yet one more Register editorial, on efforts to keep Ron Paul out of future debates. My belief is like it's banning a book in Boston in the wa-a-a-y old days. Publishers loved it because it gave them valuable publicity and sold lots more books elsewhere. Ron Paul couldn't have bought the amount of publicity he's garnered from being ignorantly attacked by Rudy.

I've read through the transcript of the debate and am tempted to go through the fallacious and misleading statements of the candidates, but there are so many! ... Maybe I'll get to a few if I have some more time than I'm likely to have.

More on GOP and torture

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the way GOP candidates handled the subject of torture in this week's "debate." If you note any similarity to what I've been saying on the blog, well, I guess that's purely coincidental. Right!

Talking with Iran

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the plan for the United States and Iran to sit down together and talk about security issues and common interests (if any) in the way Iraq works out. Although Bush in particular has talked himself into a box with his previous statements -- we won't talk until they quit enriching any uranium whatsoever -- we hope the talks will lead to wider discussions and eventually to diplomatic relations.

I've thought for a long time that the practice of withdrawing diplomatic recognition from countries of which you disapprove is childish and almost completely ineffective. (But then diplomacy quite often resembles a school playground whjen the third-graders are at recess -- remember the Iranian diplomat who claimed to be offended by a violinist wearing a red dress at the get-together at Sharm-al-Sheik a couple of weeks ago?)

Withdrawing recognition, however, means you don't have an embassy in the other nation's capital, and embassies areoften used for both overt and covert intelligencve-gathering. They allow you to know more about your opponent or potential adversary, which is a key to being effective. Bush seems to prefer posturing and ignorance.

Revolt within Justice

The testimony of James Comey about the dramatic effort byAlberto Gonzales and Andrew Card to exploit then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was critically ill, into signing off on a renewal of the NSA unwarranted surveillance on Americans program was fascinating, and pretty revealing about the contempt this administration has for the rule of law.

It turns out that Comey, who was Ashcroft's #2, wasn't the only one in the Justice Department concerned about the way the administration preferred to run roughshod over civil liberties. According to this story about a year ago in Newsweek, which I didn't see back then, there was also Jack Goldsmith, who now teaches at Harvard. He was not only part of the Justice team (along with Comey and Patrick Philbin, as well as John Bellinger, the National Security Council's top lawyer) who resisted renewing the NSA program, they also fought over memos that seemed to authorize torture, primarily written by John Yoo (who now teaches at Berkeley). These guys butted heads constantly with executive power absolutists Yoo, Gonzales and David Addington, who was Cheney's counsel then and is his chief of staff now.

Maybe all is not lost -- though it's worth noting that most of the good guys are out of government now.

More on Giuliani's ignorance

Here's a good piece by Scott Horton about the set-to between Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani the other night over whether the U.S. being "over there" was a factor in the attack by al-Qaida on 9/11. Of course nobody has read Osama's mind, but it's pretty much a certainty that it was. Scott makes some of the same points I made below, but more extensively.

The episode really demonstrates how thoroughly conventional politics thrives on a narrow range of opinions, most of them dead wrong, and recoils like somebody bitten by a snake when an unwanted piece of truth manages to find its way into one of the establishment's pet media. Ron Paul uttering a bit of truth has all kinds of people so upset at Ron Paul that many Republicans want him excluded from future debates, and a former aide has already declared he will run against him in next year's Republican primary.

I think they're frightened that it will turn out Ron's opinions are more widely shared than most people had guessed. He has scored first or second in almost every "who won the debate" online poll. The scared-rabbit establishmentarians say it's because his tiny band of fans are stuffing the digital ballot box. Certainly online polls are not a random sample, and that's true to some extent. His Website urges supporters to go vote for him. I'd be amazed if all the other candidates' sites didn't say the same thing.

The results suggest he has more supporters who are willing to go vote than the other candidates, or supporters who are more dedicated and willing to vote again and again. Either way, it's a sign of support most Republicans would rather deny or debunk than take honest notice of.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

New Kennedy assassination questions

I've never been much of a Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory fan. It has generally seemed to me that Oswald as the lone assassin was as good a theory as most of the others that whirled around the tragedy, fitting most of the known facts.

However, this story is enough at least to make me wonder. Former FBI lab metallurgist William Tobin and a couple of Texas A&M researchers have raised the possibility of a third bullet, which would likely mean a second shooter, though they didn't weigh in on that.

The background. After retiringTobin questioned the science that had been used by the FBI to match bullets to crime suspects through their lead content. The National Academy of Sciences reviewed the topic and agreed in 2003 that the long-time FBI methodology was flawed. The FBI agreed and adopted the new recommended methodology. Tobin and the othefs then used the new methodology to analyze the five Kennedy bullet fragments, and concluded that they could have come from three bullets.

This doesn't strike me as conclusive yet, but as worthy of further scientific investigation.

The party of torture?

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Republican presidential candidates' debate Tuesday was the fact that almost all the candidates implicitly -- and in some cases explicitly and even enthusiastically -- endorsed torture as a legitimate government activity in the era of terror. Fox News honcho Brit Hume set it up with a hypothetical situation -- suicide attacks on three shopping malls, a fourth group of would-be attackers caught before they attacked and taken to Guantanamo, another attack expected imminently on the basis of soild intelligence. So how aggressively would these guys want those terrorists questioned?

John McCain, who has actually experienced torture, was forthright enough, saying that torture might be used in a one-in-a-million case but in 999,999 cases it should be unacceptable -- because it's not about the terrorists but about what kind of country this is. He also made the point that -- as every person with interrogation experience I've talked to agrees, and I've talked to more than I ever thought I would in the last few years -- inflicting physical and psychological pain cases the subject to say what he thinks you want to hear -- not the truth (though in very rare cases that might happen), but whatever will stop the pain.

There's a mock-macho attitude abroad in this country that wants to find reasons to justify torture. But the notion that it is an efficacious way to get accurate information about potential threats is the stuff of spy novels and TV shows, not reality. The only reason to want to torture is to want to punish bad guys in an especially cruel and sadistic manner. Yet people who want to be seen as tough realists are all too eager to endorse the idea. Perhaps it's part of the coarseness (pardon the understatement) that generally becomes more prominent in a society during wartime.

Sp here were most of the candidates ready to endorse torture as official policy, at least in a worst-case hypothetical. Some took refuge in the verbal dodge of "enhanced interrogation techniques," even denying that it would amount to real torture, but Ron Paul had it right when he said "It sounds like Newspeak." (Though even Ron's following comment crept right up to the edge of endorsing torture himself.)

Predictably the worst were Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo, who seemed almost eager to let people know they endorsed sadism as government policy. But Mitt Romney was particularly expansive on the subject, not just in the debate but in an interview following by the generally despicable Sean Hannity. Rudy, of course, had to show how tough he is.

Even more troubling was the presumably all-Republican audience that sat on its hands while McCain made the case against torture, but applauded whenever anyone else endorsed torture.

It's becoming a meaner and nastier country.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Gonzales and Ashcroft

I don't suppose I imagined that anything could make me feel kindly about former Attorney General John Ashcroft, but this story just might have done the trick. The background is the unwarranted National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program that included eavesdropping on people in the United States, a program I still believe violated (and still does) the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Apparently by 2004 a number of people in the Justice Department thought so too, and they came up with some modifications they wanted to introduce to make it legal (or perhaps less egregiously illegal -- the details are still classified).

The rest of the story reads like a spy novel or a fanciful movie.

Anyway, as James Comey, former Deputy Attorney General, the Number 2 guy under Ashcroft, testified yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the department had decided not to sign off on the next 45-day extension of the program back in 2004. In March 2004 John Ashcroft was taken sick with a severe pancreatic disorder and hospitalized. Comey became acting Attorney General and told the White House he wouldn't sign the form. Then he learned that then-White House chief of staff Andy Card and then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales planned to race over to Ashcroft's hospital room -- even though his wife had banned all visitors, he was so sick -- to get him to sign the form.

Comey was in a department vehicle at the time, and he raced over -- sirens and all -- to get there first. He told Ashcroft what the White House boys were planning but wasn't sure if he was conscious enough to understand. When Card and Gonzales arrived they started to explain what they wanted, and Ashcroft had just enough strength to rise weakly from his sickbed and say unequivocally that he wouldn't sign off.

"I was angry, Comey said. "I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man, who did not have the powers of the attorney general because they had been transferred to me. I thought he had conducted himself in a way that demonstrated a strength I had never seen before, but still I thought it was improper."

To say the least.

Bush extended the program anyway, but then met with Comey and agreed to the changes Justice wanted. The program was then extended with modifications three or four weeks later.

So Ashcroft and Comey did something noble and Gonzales and Card did something ignoble. We already knew these guys had little respect for legal niceties, arguing constantly that in time of war -- never mind that no war had ever been declared by Congress, as the Constitution requires -- the president's powers were virtually limitless. Now we know they were willing to try to exploit a colleague's sickness. Apparently Comey, Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and other senior Justice Department offocials were prepared to resign over the incident and issue, which seems to have induced the White House to relent. Good for them. I have a new-found respect.

Rudy the opportunist

Rudy Giuliani scored a rhetorical coup against Ron Paul in the South Carolina Republican debate last night, but it was scored at the expense of intellectual honesty and solid knowledge about foreign affairs (of which Rudy has no experience whatsoever). At one point, Rep. Paul asked: "Have you ever read the reasons they attacked us? They attack us because we've been over there. What would we say here if China was doing this in our countryor in the Gulf of Mexico?" He pointed out that prior to 9/11 the U.S. had been bombing Iraq regularly for 10 years.

Rudy -- going out of turn, demonstrating boldness (and rudeness, which seems to be a positive for Republicans these days) -- pounced. He said Rep. Paul was saying that the U.S. had invited the attack. "I don't think I've ever heard that before, and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th," and demanded that Rep Paul withdraw the remark, which he declined to do.

Good for him. Rudy, of course, twisted the comment, from noting that U.S. interventionism was a factor in terrorists' determination to attack the U.S. to saying we had invited it. But it is certainly the case that U.S. intervention is associated with increased terror attacks on U.S. assets and people. As far back as 1998, Ivan Eland, then with the Cato Institute, did a paper documenting the fact -- based on a report from the Pentagon's Defense Science Board and acknowledged by President Clinton. Key sentence: "According to the Defense Science Board, a strong correlation exists between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States. President Clinton has also acknowledged that link."

Michael Scheuer, the former head of the bin Laden desk at the CIA -- before 9/11 he was probably the single American who had most closely studied bin Laden and al-Qaida -- reinforced the point in his excellent book, "Imperial Hubris." Americans like to think "they hate us because we're free" or because they find the West repulsively decadent. But Scheuer makes it clear that bin Laden and other jihadists are more motivated much more by what we do than what our society is like. Prior to 9/11 bin Laden repeatedly stressed his outrage the U.S. troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia, home of Islam's holiest sites.

Chalmers Johnson also made the point in his fine book, "Blowback," published prior to 9/11, which predicted that the U.S. would face increasing attacks, including terrorist attacks, because of its policy of stationing military troops in almost every country in the world, and meddling in many of those countries.

One can say that such "blowback" -- an old CIA term for unintended negative consequences of actions -- is a price we're willing to pay for bearing any burden and intervening promiscuously overseas. But it's intellectually dishonest and just plain ignorant (gee, when was the last time you heard such terms applied to an ambitious politician?) to deny that America's interventionist policies are a key factor in making the country and its assets overseas a target for terrorists.

This is hardly to say that changing to a policy of non-intervention would eliminate the terrorist threat. The U.S. would still be the most powerful country on earth, and powerful countries tend to attract enmity even when they don't do much of anything to warrant it. And the jihadists do have an iedological agenda that includes hostility to the west. But interventionism defrinitely magnifies the threat and makes it easier for leaders like bin Laden to recruit people.

The puppy dog theory of terrorism

Have caught a bit of the GOP presidential "debate" in South Carolina last night, and I'm simply fascinated at how almost all the candidates (with the honorable exception of Ron Paul) embrace what somebody has dubbed the "puppy dog" theory on the war in Iraq. If we leave Iraq, the contention goes, the terrorists will follow us home -- presumably just like a "Mommy he followed me home" puppy dog.

That is ludicrous. First, if anyone believes Osama and those he organizes and/or inspires aren't thinking about and probably planning an attack within the United States right now, even as the war is going on, they must be incredibly naive. I don't know why an attack hasn't come yet -- though it's worth noting that before 9/11 it was usually a few years betweeen al-Qaida attacks, so it shouldn't be amazing that one hasn't come yet. Presumably the attempts to disrupt international terrorist financial networks and harden some domestic targets have had an impact, but I would be amazed if plans have not been in the works to hit the U.S. The war in Iraq certainly hasn't prevented terrorist attacks in Spain, England, Indonesia and elsewhere. The notion that it's keeping them from attacking the U.S. is silly: if anything it provides more incentive to try.

It's also important to remember that the Iraq war has served as an invaluable recruiting tool for al-Qaida and similar jihadist outfits. The open-ended U.S. occupation convinces many Muslims inclined to be radical that the U.S. has not only invaded and occupied a Muslim country but that it plans to occupy it for a long time and change it in ways many Muslims will not like -- that the U.S. is indeed a "crusader" nation that intends to destroy Islam. It's more than possible that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would make it more difficult for jihadists to recruit people willing to risk their lives to hurt the United States.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Fred Thompson a therapy candidate?

I'm not sure if Slate's John Dickerson is quite correct in this piece that Fred Thompson is the GOP's "therapy candidate," the guy who's attractive because he makes conservatives unsatisfied with their choices to date feel good. But he does make some telling points about Thompson's thin resume, which consists of "an undistinguished eight years in the Senate, an acting career, and a youthful turn as co-counsel in the Watergate hearings. Supporters try to pump up his resume by boasting that he shepherded John Roberts through his confirmation hearings -- but that was the legal equivalent of walking Michael Jordan onto the court."

Reagan was an actor, but he had eight years experience as governor of California before running for president. Thompson has no executive experience and no foreign policy experience. His ties are to Howard Baker, generally conservative but hardly a "movement" conservative. I find it fascinating that so many Republicans look on him as a potential savior.

Trade patterns

A couple of recent stories suggest that international trade and economic patterns are changing in a way I think is essentially healthy. First is a story out of Prague about how the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and other Eastern European countries are becoming places where Western European companies outsource jobs like data processing, bookkeeping, even research and development.

It shows that despite all that is wrong with Western European governments, some companies are healthy enough to want or need to outsource (perhaps in part because of strict labor rules at home) and Eastern European countries have enough skilled people to be an attractive place to which to farm out work -- "a highly educated, multilingual pool of talent in an increasingly affluent consumer market." U.S. companies like IBM, Dell and Morgan Stanley have also outsourced work to Eastern Europe. Growing affluence and attractiveness to international companies in Eastern Europe strikes me as good news.

Second is news that the U.S. "trade deficit" -- it's not really a deficit, but a difference, and is hardly anything resembling an important economic indicator, although the mainstream media still haven't figured this out -- declined slightly in April , in part because the dollar is weak relative to other currencies creating a surge in exports, and in part because economies in other parts of the world are healthy enough -- especially consumer economies in Europe and Asia -- to create demand for imports from the United States.

Maybe globalization is a good thing.

Dissecting the Netroots

Jonathan Chait over at New Republic did a fairly lengthy piece on the generally left-wing netroots, the bloggers and organizers who have become so important -- and rather quickly -- to the Democratic Party. He believes most of the netrooters were activated since 2000 -- many by the Florida recount -- and the most important thing to most of them is getting a Democrat in the White House in 2008. It's already aroused some controversy, but I found it a pretty informative read.

Phooey on the Web?

Here's a fascinating story. Seems a Dallas technology company did a survey and found that 29 percent of U.S. homes don't have Internet service and don't plan to get it. It's not a matter of money. Most of these people just see little point to having access to the Web. 44 percent of them say they are not interested in anything on the Internet. Only 17 percent said they don't know how to use it and 14 percent said they used it at work so they didn't need it at home.

Fascinating. It's easy to fall into believing that just everybody has Internet access these days, but almost a third of Americans say they're just not interested. I don't know if I'm sorry for them or mildly envious.

Padilla trial begins

The trial of Jose Padilla began -- well, it's yesterday now, I guess -- in Miami. While it's a tribute to some people who were insistent that the rule of law not be abandoned entirely in the face of the vaunted War on Terror, the trial, and the way Padilla was treated prior to having a trial, will be a serious blot on this country.

Padilla, a U.S. citizen, was arrested way back in May 2002 at Chicago's O'Hare airport, on a flight from Pakistan then-Attorney General John Ashcroft declared him a "dirty bomber" who had plans to blow up apartment buildings with a bomb containing radioactive material to make it more harmful, and a key terrorist operative. It soon became apparent he was more a wannabe than a real terrorist. He was then declared an "enemy combatant" and locked up incommunicado in a Navy brig in South Carolina. Not charged with anything, just locked up.

Lawyers appealed on his behalf and his case got to the Supreme Court -- almost twice (the first time it was remanded for having been brought in the wrong venue). When the court was about to decide whether to take the case again, the government suddenly decided it would charge him in a civilian court as part of a conspiracy to murder and maim people overseas and to raise money and recruits for terrorist organizations. This is completely different from the allegations made about him when he was first arrested.

He may well have gone to an al-Qaida training camp. Whether the information form (al-Qaida has written application forms? Who knew?) that seems to be the key evidence against him is authentic or relevant to the charges against him will of course be contested.

But the main issue, when and how people can be detained and imprisoned without charges being filed against them -- a charaacteristic of authoritarian regimes, not free societies with habeas corpus -- may not be adjudicated in this case.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Pleasures of the Renaissance Faire

Been away from this for a while and have a fair amount to catch up on. I want to start with a few thoughts on why Renaissance Faires are so popular. I believe the first one in Southern California was in 1969 or so, and I went to one out in Agoura within a couple of years of that. It was fun, especially observing all the people who got so heavily into it, with costumes, authentic swords and the like. There's an obvious attraction for some people in dressing up, playing a role, and trying to revive or recover some of the pleasures and practices of the past.

I first sang at a Faire some 10 years ago, and the group I sing with, the Temecula Vintage Singers, participated again this year, on Saturday. Our function was to wander around and stop and sing madrigals for 10 minutes or so, then move on to another spot and do it again. We usually had a relatively large crowd listening, and maybe five or six people who really got into the music, closing their eyes, listening intently and applauding enthusiastically. Madrigals, with the fa la la la las, are kind of silly (at least the English ones), celebrating shspherds and maidens in love and all. There's a little more fun when you consider the fa la las are generally a code for getting it on, or a way for one person in the song to express something like f--k you and the horse you rode in on.

What's really striking to me, however, is the celebration, as in the title of those in Southern California -- a Renaissance Pleasure Faire -- of pleasures all too many in our increasingly puritanical and politically correct society view as vices. There's an emphasis on the bawdy. Many women wear those bustieres (or whatever) that push up and expose their breasts to just short of the nipple. One woman walked with a tankard of ale perched perfectly on one breast, perfectly balanced. One guy had his mug strapped to the top of his head. A prepared man, I saidf, and he acknowledged the compliment graciously.

Then there was the drinking. People back then drank a lot more than today, in large part because beer was less dangerous than often-polluted water. I didn't see any srtaggering drunks (maybe 6.50 for a beer had something to do with that) but perhaps a third of the people had their own pewter or ceramic or even wooden tankards and drinking was not something anybody was shy about. One of the shows celebrated drinking in almost every rowdy and raunchy song. Plenty of people were smoking cigars and cigarettes. I lost track of how many swords I saw, and most of them were real swords

Dressing up, play-acting, learning a bit of history (some of the costumed people were very particular about authenticity, and the costumes on sale cost a pretty penny) saying prithee, gramercy, and thee and thou. But I also think that enjoying a drink and a smoke, and carrying weapons, with nobody there to look down on you or lecture you about what a dreadful influence you are on society is a part of the attraction.

In short Renaissance Faires offer an outlet for people who want to indulge in pleasures that many of the scolds in our modern society consider vices. Good for them!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Wheatcroft on Blair

The best short assessment of Tony Blair I've seen is this one by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in Wheatcroft thinks the British peoples' disappointment (and much worse) in Tony Blair has to do with more than the Iraq war. There was a disparity throughout his career between words and deeds. He promised to be squeaky-clean and presided over scandal and corrupti0n, and so on.

He may have been like Bill Clinton (as I perceived him) as being forever sophomoric, in that he thinks talking about solving a problem is the same thing as actually solving it. The main thing is to come up with a p0roposal or program that seems feasible in a college dorm room bull session, and you've done your job. You've figured it out. No need to worry about follow-through -- that's for others to handle. You need to get on to thinking about the next big problem or trend or opportunity.

Well, maybe governing by inattention wasn't all bad. Both Clinton and Blair presided over periods of relative prosperity and solid economic growth. Economic trends tend to be more complex than most of us can even appreciate, let alone analyze, so presidents and prime ministers get both too much credit and too much blame for growth and recession; the roots are usually in a previous term, or in some discovery government never anticipated or encouraged. But chief executives who don't follow through on all their grandiose schemes sometimes meet the Hippocratic standard of doing no harm. Think how much better off the U.S. would be if Bush hadn't really cared about Iraq beyond a few posturing speeches.

Fort Dix problems?

The case against the Fort Dix Six, the mostly Albanian immigrants who reportedly had a plan to attack Fort Dix in New Jersey, looks a little weaker in light of this story. The basic outline is that 16 months ago a Circuit City clerk alerted authorities to the fact that some guys were seeking to transfer a videotape with a bunch of guys screaming about jihad and firing weapons. The FBI infiltrated the group, recorded some of their comments on tape, and this week arrested them.

The first thing to note is that this was old-fashioned police work sparked by an alert citizen. The extra powers the government seized through the Patriot Act were not needed in this case, nor was it the result of unwarranted surveillance of Americans or massive tapping of phone calls.

Unfortunately, it could turn out that the infiltration of the group may have made it appear more dangerous than it was. The guy who infiltrated claimed to be an Egyptian with military experience. He went along on trips to case out targets. But apparently he was the one who pushed hardest for them to move from disaffected stumblebums who might never have been able to translate their confused hostility into action to something resembling a more genuine threat. He kept suggesting more sophisticated weapons and saying he knew how to acquire them. The others looked to him as a leader. One even said, "I am at your services."

That's always the danger with undercover or "sting" operations. They can create crimes that never would have happened without the prodding of the undercover guy. It strikes me as OK to initiate surveillance on these guys. If they really were all talk and no action, however, continued monitoring might have been justified --but if the undercover FBI guy was more of a catalyst than an observer, pushing them into something that would warrant arrest when they might not have gone so far on their own, a jury might buy it, but I find it ethically troubling.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Sarkozy's task

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the victory of Nicolas Sarkozy in the election for president of France. Most observers think this was something of a landmark election for France -- both candidates were born after World War II, both offered change from the Gaullist approach -- and French voters, 85 percent of whom turned out, seemd to think it was important too.

Sarkozy has said he wants to get France back to working again and that he admires the United States, especially its work ethic. However, the welfare-entitlement state is deeply entrenched institutionally, and French young people -- the privileged ones, not the Muslim immigrants -- rioted a year or so ago when Chirac suggested that for workers under 26 perhaps it would be OK to give employers more flexibility about firing them or laying them off during the first two years of employment.

Bye Bye Blair

Here's an interesting piece from Dan Finkelstein's column in the (London) Times on the five Americans he thinks most influenced Tony Blair, who announced today that he would be stepping down as prime minister for 10 years come June 27. As Finkelstin sees it, they were Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, the "new Democrat" think-tank that provided back-up to Clinton and others, Bill Clinton, Rupert Murdoch, Dick Morris, and George W. Bush. If he was going to be influenced or changed by Americans, you might think he would have picked a more propitious bunch.

One thing Tony Blair might have done was to change the way politics is discussed in Britain. Left-wing Labor members used to grouse that he left Margaret Thatcher's market-oriented reforms pretty much in place, thus becoming like the putative opposition party -- Thatcherism-lite. Now the British Tories are falling all over themselves to show how compassionate and socially aware they are, becoming Blairism-lite?

He does deserve a fair amount of credit for the fact that Northern Ireland now has a coalition government that so far (it's only a few days old) looks to be ready to operate with a minimum of violence and correct if not exactly warm relations between former foes. Maybe 50 years from now in Iraq.

Americans might remember him best for his warm relations with two quite different American presidents and for the fact that he could always make the case for the war in Iraq much more convincingly than our own sometimes tongue-tied president. Ironically, that torpedoed his popularity -- although it might have plummeted anyway; people tend to get tired of a politician after 10 years.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Importance of lawyers

Earlier in my life I was generally contemptuous of lawyers, and I still enjoy a good lawyer joke. But while many lawyers really are worthy of contempt, good lawyers, who represent clients well and worthily, often are essential to finding a semblance of justice in our system. Count on my friend Randy Barnett to state the case eloquently in a piece he wrote just after the Duke lacrosse rape case.

Randy, who argued the Gonzales v. Raich medical marijuana case before the Supreme Court, was on a panel years ago on a show about people who had been wrongly convicted. As a former prosecutor, he was supposed to give the prosecution side, but he was as appalled at wrongful convictions as any of the other panelists:

"The point I decided to make was simple: For better or worse, we have an adversary legal system that relies for its proper operation on having competent lawyers on both sides. In every case I knew about where an innocent person had been convicted, there had been an incompetent defense lawyer at the pretrial and trial stages.

"The reaction of the others on the stage was stunning. The former defendants all began nodding their heads while their lawyers, who represented them on appeal but not at trial, sat sullenly beside them. Afterwards, some parents even came up to shake my hand."

His point was that the Duke lacrosse accusees (or their parents) had the means to have competent lawyers -- though that alone might not have done it. Plenty of people accused, wrongly or otherwise, don't have excellent lawyers.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Renaissance Pleasure Faire

Now for a little shameless self-promotion. A group drawn from the Temecula Vintage Singers will be performing this Saturday from noon to four, singing madrigals, at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. Yours truly, in what will undoubtedly be a too-hot costume, will be among them.

The Faire is in Irwindale, off the 210, in the Santa Fe Dam recreational area. The Web site has directions. Our group will be wandering street singers, moving around and stopping to sing a few, then moving on again.

If you've never been to one of these events, it's worth doing at least once. I hate to think how long ago I went to my first one -- must be almost 40 years ago, at the Movie Ranch in Agoura. There are costumes, games, much to eat and drink, and lots of people running around saying prithee and good morrow. They take the pleasure part fairly seriously -- pretending to live in the past is one of the few ways one can be unabashedly for fun and frolic these days. And it's suitably bawdy.

The GOP debate

Here's a link to the piece I did for the Register's Sunday Commentary section on the Republican presidential -- well, event, it was hardly a debate -- last Thursday. In brief, I thought the format stunk, Romney did himself the most good, McCain hurt himself and Giuliani didn't hurt himself badly. Ron Paul distinguished himself by being against the war, but the mainstream media by and large didn't see his presence as all that significant. If it gives him staying power, however, that perception could change.

Tragic Russia

Here's a link to a piece I did for last week, on the fact that Russia just can't seem to get good governance. I have had nice things to say about Boris Yeltsin, and I still think most of them were justified, but he is certainly subject to criticism, and it's hardly beyond the pale to assess him as a failed leader. And Putin is certainly more competent and attentive, but when a political leader is systematically consolidating and centralizing power, one doesn't want competence. I'd almost prefer it if Putin were a bumbler.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Mayweather-De LaHoya

I'm hardly a huge fight fan, but I watch them from time to time. Yesterday we were in Las Vegas visiting with our nephew Tom. His friend, Marcos Cruz, had a fight-watching party to which we were invited. Lots of people, lots of Corona. Fortunately the noise drowned out the announcers, so we could watch without vapid comments.

I wanted De LaHoya to win, though not very strongly and for no particularly rational reason. I think that made me inclined to be aware of the good things De LaHoya was doing, and he did do some. However, I thought Mayweather was clearly the winner. De LaHoya's good hits didn't seem to faze him, and he was clearly the more poised and successful fighter in the late rounds. I suppose I could see a theory of scoring that rewards being aggressive, taking control of the flow of the fight, which De LaHoya did a good bit of the time. But even given nthat, I'm surprised it was a split decision.

Good camraderie.

How they spun

The procedure in a “spin room” – that’s what the organizers called the place, with capital letters – is reasonably efficient, considering the purposes of the participants. The candidates want the journalists to write or broadcast that they won, or at least distinguished themselves – or, to get to the minimum of the positive, that they didn’t commit a major gaffe or do anything to embarrass themselves. So they meet and mingle, one side prepared with canned questions and the other side with canned answers.

Along the outside walls of the Spin Room at the Reagan Library Thursday – from which I watched the event (one is reluctant to call it a debate) on television, since I had made arrangements to come at the last minute and the journalistic pool in the main hall was filled already – are makeshift TV set-ups in cubicle-like areas separated by temporary walls, with some kind of poster as background for the camera. In the middle of the room, once the main event is over, the spinners stand with signs held over their heads, identifying the candidate and the spinner, as in “Giuliani – Susan Molinari.”

The hacks descend on them, with microphone, recorder or notebook, sometimes a camera, and ask how their guy did. The spinners dutifully declare that their guy clearly won this thing, that the American people simply can’t get enough of his mug on the TV explaining important issues, and yearn to have him in their living rooms (at least during news shows and national crises) for the four significant years beginning in 2009.

Here’s what various spinners told me:

Missouri Sen. Jim Talent and former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber said their man Romney clearly carried the day by looking presidential, sounding informed and assured about the key issues, including Iraq, and showing the occasional sign of having a sense of humor. As the least-known of the “top three” he had to make a good showing, and he did.

On behalf of Giuliani, one Mike Du Hain (sp?) said the American people saw somebody who was ready now to be president, having reminded people that he had handled problems he encountered on becoming mayor (cut crime, blah blah) and performed superbly in crises.

Steve Schmidt, a McCain spinner, said his guy had showed passion, talked directly about the challenges facing America (Islamic Fascism) and showed he was the guy to handle them, the most prepared. He had the most credible record on spending and answered questions in a straightforward way. (He also said Giuliani had confused him on abortion, seeming to hold two positions at once – similar to the comments Vin Weber on behalf of Romney had made.

Former GOP Calif. Gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon, on behalf of Giuliani, said his position on abortion wasn’t confused at all, simply well-thought-out and nuanced; unfortunately the format didn’t allow for full exploration of complex issues.

Bob Wickes, on behalf of Huckabee, talked about how well they were organized in early primary states like Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire. The more the American people saw of Huckabee, he averred, and the more they learned about his record as governor of Arkansas, the better they liked him.

Jim Gilmore’s guy, one Ed Jost, said the former Virginia governor had made it clear that he was a consistent conservative who kept his campaign promises . He said some of the top guys had changed their positions in ways that made people wonder, and when things shook out among them, his guy would start rising.

I report, you decide. Which reminds me. Several Democratic candidates have refused to participate in debates co-sponsored by Fox, but here were the Republicans showing up for an MSNBC-sponsored event, moderated by Chris Matthews (former Carter speechwriter, former Tip O’Neill aide) and previewed and reviewed by Keith Olberman, who has made a career of bashing Bush. Does that make the Democrats look more than a bit petty?

Friday, May 04, 2007

Republicans in denial

I'll have more later, but I want to mention two strong impressions I got from attending the first Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. The first is that most Republicans are in deep denial about the fact that the main reason they lost control of Congress last November is because of the unpopularity of the war in Iraq. The second is that most media outlets don't know a man-bites-dog story when they see one in front of their eyes.

As this story shows, most of the candidates walked what is called a "tightrope" on the war, distancing themselves a bit from Bush but endorsing the idea of the war, and that it is the central front in the war on terrorism and we simply have to win it blah-blah-blah. This story doesn't mention it but if anything former Wisconsin Gov. (and former HHS Sec.) Tommy Thompson probably had the most clearly-thought-out position, advocating elections in each of the 18 provinces and an oil revenue-sharing agreement among the central government, the provinces, and individual Iraqis.

This strikes me as a sure way for Republicans to lose the White House in 2008. The polls have been steady for many months. A solid 60 percent of Americans think the Iraq war was a mistake and want the United States out. McCain acknowledged some of this by saying the war was mismanaged for four years but there's a new strategy in place that gives us a chance of winning (though he never quite defined what that meant). Moreover, almost all the candidates vied with one another to be aggressive about Iran. A war with that country would complete the decimation of U.S. military strength, and I suspect most Americans, while despising Ahmadinejad, know that too.

But look at what that story, and almost all the network news shows I watched in L.A. didn't mention. There was one presidential candidate who forthrightly declared he was against the war and as Chris Matthews acknowledged in a question to him, had voted against authorizing it back in 2002. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas didn't get much of a chance to talk -- given the format, with 10 candidates squeezed into 90 minutes none of them did, and Chris Matthews spent some of that time being cute -- but when he did talk he criticized the war, advocated a foreign policy of non-interventionism, arguing that it was the traditional American and traditional Republican approach to the world at large, and noted that as long as the U.S. plays the role of policeman of the world it will be virtually impossible to reduce taxes.

A Republican presidential candidate opposed to the war. Wasn't that a story? Ron made his case civilly rather than declaring that these other candidates scared him, as Mike Gravel did in the Demo debate last week, garnering a few moments of media attention.

I talked to Ron briefly before the debate and then a bit more afterward. I asked him why he was doing this. He said, "Why do you think? We need to hold these guys' feet to the fire -- on the war issue." Afterward he said he just doesn't see how any Republican candidate can win on a platform of more war, so he plans to stick with the process all the way rather than dropping out if he doesn't raise enough money to play with the big boys.

Maybe the media will notice then. I noticed in the spin room afterward that a lot of TV stations were interested in talking to him. He spent considerable time with Time-Warner Cable and MSNBC. We'll see if it makes an impression or garners attention from old-fashioned Republicans who thought their party was devoted to the Constitution and the kind of "humble" rather than nation-building foreign policy that candidate Bush declared would be disastrous during the 2000 debates. Well, he was right about something.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Banal talk of evil

I'm grateful to Gregg Easterbrook at The New Republic for articulating a misgiving that has been lurking at the back of my mind without me formulating it into a more coherent form ever since the murders at Virginia Tech. In this piece Easterbrook lays it on the line:

"The fact that murder had happened at Virginia Tech was clear within hours, if not minutes, of initial reports. Yet plenty of media figures could not bring themselves to say that the killer was a killer, that the murderer was a murderer. Instead they used 'shooter,' a weirdly neutral term that practically sounds like a skilled trade." Easterbrook's Nexis search turned up 2,516 stories that used "shooter" or "gunman," while only 746 used "murderer" or "killer." He also laments the common use of the term "shooting spree" rather than "rampage."

Easterbrook contends that "Evil exists [whether from psychosis, Satan or whatever] and must be spoken of as evil rather than in euphemism," otherwise we can't think about it clearly.

I suspect there's another reason besides leeriness about using the word "evil" for the commonplace use of the terms "shooter" and "gunman," perhaps even "shooting spree." Most "mainstream" journalists have an agenda of being for gun control, and using those terms subtly promote that agenda. If it was a "shooter" rather than an evil murderer, maybe taking the shooting implement out of his hands will solve the problem.

Buckley worries about GOP

I trust that few people will contend that Bill Buckley is not a "real" conservative (whatever that means these days). Unlike many conservatives, he has been skeptical about the Iraq war for some time. It's ironic that over at National Review only the "Godfather" who founded the magazine but apparently has no active role beyond writing columns now, has staked out a position on war and foreign policy notably independent of the Bush administration. Well, Jeffrey Hart, associated with the magazine for decades, saw through Bush early on, but I guess he's become something of an unperson to the jejune war-whoopers.

How a self-respecting conservative could maintain any degree of loyalty to such a collection of mediocrities as those assembled by the big-spending non-communicator-in-chief is beyond me, but war seems to have a chilling effect on independent thought.

In this column, Buckley figures that "The political problem of the Bush administration is grave, possibly beyond the point of rescue." He closes by suggesting that because of the war, "There are grounds for wondering whether the Republican Party will survive this dilemma." Money quote:

"It is simply untrue that we are making decisive progress in Iraq. The indicators rise and fall from day to day, week to week, month to month. In South Vietnam there was an organized enemy. There is clearly organization in the strikes by the terrorists against our forces and against the civil government in Iraq, but whereas in Vietnam we had Hanoi as the operative headquarters of the enemy, we have no equivalent of that in Iraq, and that is a matter of paralyzing importance." Such a decentralized force is much more difficult to cope with militarily.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Republican debate

I will be covering tomorrow's Republican presidential debate, scheduled for 5:00 p.m. Pacific time tomorrow at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. It will be carried live on MSNBC and Webcast by Politico. I won't be set up to blog from there, but I'll provide input for the Register's editorial on the event and will be blogging both here and on the Register's blog, "Orange Punch." Perhaps on Thursday evening when I get home, but definitely on Friday.

There are 10 candidates in this event, so even though it's scheduled for 90 minutes there won't be much chance for candidates to present their views in anything like sufficient detail. And Fred Thompson, who's been doing well in the polls, is not an announced candidate (yet), so he won't be there (though he'll be in Orange County Friday at the GOP establishment Lincoln Club).

I'll be looking to see if the titular front-runners, Giuliani and McCain, either stumble or do something to consolidate their positions, and whether Mitt Romney does well enough to start moving up. I'll also try to assess whether the others in the pack -- Sam Brownback, Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo, Tommy Thompson, and most of all Ron Paul -- distinguish themselves enough that they're likely to stick around much longer. Ron Paul has only token money, but a good performance here -- especially one emphasizing his opposition to the war and support for a non-interventionist foreign policy -- could spark enough support that he can keep these issues being discussed deep into the election cycle.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Tenet comes out

I ordered a review copy of former CIA director George Tenets's new book from HarperCollins, so I can't comment on it until I've read it. But I caught most of his interview on "60 Minutes" last night. While I still find him a personally unattractive character and believe he was a terrible CIA director, I think a great deal of what he had to say about the Bush administration, especially during the run-up to the Iraq war, when I was paying very close attention, is pretty right-on. The administration decided to invade Iraq almost immediately after 9/11, and worked hard to get not necessarily credible but sellable information to justify it. When Tenet says George W. didn't need him saying "slam dunk" to decide to go to war, it rings true.

Tenet's experience was as a congressional staffer, so he was more political than independent as CIA director. My strong impression is that he figured out what Bush wanted to hear and fed it to him -- maybe with some qualifications in the footnotes, which Bush would never even notice. The National Intelligence Assessment of October 2002 on Iraq was a radical departure from previous NIEs in that it expressed a certainty about Saddam and WMDs that wasn't there in previous reports. Whether that was a response to pressure from Cheney -- remember his personal visits to CIA HQ to goose the analysts to find more on Saddam -- and other administration figures or Tenet's effort to please Bush I don't know, but it was a deeply flawed report and known by many to be so at the time.

Nonetheless, I suspect there's information worth knowing in Tenet's book. I'll let you know.

Death of Rostropovich

Because I was traveling or reveling Thursday and Friday I missed the death of Mstislav Rostropovich, one of the great musicians -- and great human beings -- of the 20th century. He died in Moscow, his true home, from which he was exiled for 20 years, on Friday at the age of 80.

Rostropovich was almost certainly the greatest cellist of his own time, though he would be the first to pay tribute to his elders Gregor Piatagorsky, Pablo Casals and Pierre Fournier and to appreciate younger artists like Yo Yo Ma. He was passionate and romantic yet unerringly musical, with flawless technique. When he played Dvorak or Elgar, you lived the music with him, and he inspired cello pieces from Shostakovich, Lukas Foss, Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten and others, adding greatly to the cello repertoire.

He was also married to Galina Vishnevskaya, a sporano of unearthly vocal beauty. The first recording of the Verdi Requiem I purchased, back in the early '60s, featured the Moscow Philharmonic with Igor Markevich as conductor and Vishnevskaya as soprano soloist. The Verdi is operatic sacred music with devilishy difficult, highly exposed solo parts. Vishnevskaya was the star of that performance.

After Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the dissident novelist, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, the Soviet establishment attacked him and wouldn't allow him to travel to accept the prize. Rostropovich embraced him even though Solzhenitsyn, whatever his formidable literary qualities, was a notably prickly character who was not easy to like. But for Rostropovich it was a metter of principle.

Solzhenitsyn was exiled to the U.S. and Rostropovich became virtually a non-person in the Soviet Union. The world-famopus musician was almost completely barred from the concert stage and even when he appeared newspapers were not allowed to mention his name. Finally, in 1974, he was given a two-year tourist visa, and he didn't return until 1990. I was living in Washington then, and I remember the excitement when he became conductor of the NAtional Symphony Orchestra. He wasn't the most technically proficient conductor but was one of the most passionate, capable of inspiring his musicians to supreme efforts. As a conductor he was perhaps the finest exponent of Shostakovich's music.

He was able to return to the Soviet Union in 1990, when Gorbachev was liberalizing, and spent much of his last years in Russia. Exile seems especially difficult for Russians, and it was gratifying that Rostropovich lived to see communism fall. (Never mind that the current regime is hardly a model of enlightenment; communism was worse.)