Saturday, March 31, 2007

Good job, Florida, dammit!

Even though they made two baskets in a row after I put on the ugly hat -- baby-blue corduoroy with a "UCLA" in bright-gold script -- it just wasn't enough. This was not exactly what I had in mind.

I'll say this. The Bruins never gave up, as I think they pretty much did last year. They played with intensity right to the end. But Florida was just too good tonight. It isn't often that 17 points is essentially meaningless, but that was pretty much the case with Afflalo tonight. By the time he started hitting the game was just out of reach. Oh, you might make a case that if Florida had missed some hard shots and UCLA had made some relatively easy ones they might have made it closer. But there were just too many people in foul trouble, mainly caused by Florida's quickness.

I only watched part of the Ohio State-Georgetown game, so I can't assess with much knowledge. But I'd be surprised if Florida doesn't dominate on Monday night.

Not looking good, but . . .

Well, I can't say I'm happy being down 29-23 at Halftime, but with Arron Afflalo having been out most of the game after picking up his third foul, at least they stayed that close, especially given that a couple of times it looked as if Florida was going to run away with it.

Maybe there's a chance to come back and win this thing in the second half. I've got to give Florida credit, they've played their game more skillfully than the Bruins so far. But the Bruins have some intensity, despite missing w-a-a-a-y too many shots. Gotta get back, turn my hat around for rally time, maybe even put on my very ugliest UCLA cap. Come on, Bruins!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Happy Hemptime

Here's a link to an editorial the Register ran earlier this week endorsing a bill in the California legislature to permit California farmers to grow industrial hemp. It's been a long time coming. I wrote my first column -- and to my knowledge (and Jack Herer told me so as well) the first in a mainstream publication -- on industrial hemp in 1988. It came after I met Jack, author of "The Emperor Wears No Clothes," at a Free Press Association convention, read his book, checked out the references and found independent sources for the most controversial claims.

Largely because of Jack's work lots of people now know that hemp is the strongest natural fiber known, that it has been used for fiber, food, clothing, paper, rope, canvas (a Dutch word derived from cannabis) and much more, including auto parts. The fact that the federal government has tried persistently to keep American farmers from growing what used to be a staple crop as part of their idiotic War on Marijuana is an unconscionable outrage. In the not-too-distant future people will look back on these policies in wonder that so many people could have believed such absurdities about a plant, one of God's gifts to humankind, as we now wonder at people who were convinced the earth was flat.

I must pay some tribute to Chuck DeVore, Republican Assemblyman from Irvine, for being a principal co-sponsor (along with Mark Leno, a very liberal Democrat from San Francisco) of this bill two years running. (It passed the legislature last year but Ahnold vetoed it for utterly absurd reasons.) I've known Chuck since well before he ran for office, and while he's more conservative than I might like on some issues -- he would like the U.S. to have a much more aggressive foreign policy than I think wise -- he's intelligent and willing to take on an issue some would deem unconservative if he can be convinced that the facts warrant it.

I note that Tom McClintock, probably the most prominent conservative in the legislature, has also endorsed the hemp bill. If only more conservatives were willing to look at the drug war a bit more dispassionately.

Immigration reform chances

Here's a link to an editorial in the Register on immigration reform. A bill that combines harsher border enforcement with a path to citizenship and a guest worker program has been introduced by Illinois Democrat Luis Gutierrez and Arizona Republican Jeff Flake. It has more enforcement stuff than the McCain-Kennedy bill from last year, but seems to be pretty much what the administration could live with. With a majority-Democrat Congress, this just might be the only issue where Bush might be able to get legislation he likes passed.

Most congressional candidates who ran last November as harsh anti-illegal-immigrant candidates lost -- to the surprise of pundits of all shades -- so it is more than possible that the country is ready for a bill like this It would be a far better legacy for Dubya than the Iraq war.

It's hardly ideal, of course. My preference would be to let the market -- the voluntary interactions of millions of people making unforced decisions -- rather than the government, decide how many immigrants the United States "needs." The simplest way to do that would be to eliminate country immigration quotas and set up stations along the border and at international airports where would-be immigrants could be screened for infectious diseases and membership in bona fide terrorist organizations -- and sign a paper promising not to apply for taxpayer-paid benefits of any kind until they had had a chance to contribute to the tax base for a while. Five years, ten years, 200? Let's negotiate.

Not gonna happen, but it would make the immigration service an actual service (and smaller) rather than a bunch of thugs, and put the coyotes out of business.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

More unneeded secrecy

The government is trying to virtually close the trial of Stephen Rosen and Keith Weissman, two former employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. The two are accused of passing U.S. government secrets to Israel, specifically information on how the U.S. was thinking about handling Iran a couple of years ago.

I wonder if the case should even have been brought, since the two seem to have done little more than what hundreds of people in Washington do every day: work to find out stuff other people don't know and then trade on the information. If they are guilty of espionage or dealing in secrets, lots of people, including most journalists who actually pursue information rather than just relying on handouts and press releases, may be guilty also. If they're convicted it could close down sources of information even more, when what we need is more sunshine and more things unnecessarily classified brought out into the open.

Thus it would be doubly would be tragic if the government manages to keep significant portions of this trial closed to public view. Media organizations and defense lawyers are fighting the government's efforts, specifically by filing a motion in the case not to close it. let's hope they are successful.

Iraq and deadlines

Here's a link to the editorial the Register ran today on the House and Senate approving bills to fund the war but set deadlines (non-mandatory in the Senate version) for the troops to come home. Of course President Bush has vowed to veto any measure that comes to him with an "artificial deadline," and neither house has the votes to override. Still, it's healthy that the bills have passed. We're frankly puzzled at the idea of equating deadlines with defeatism. There will be costs to withdrawing soon (perhaps including a period of bloodletting in Iraq) but there are costs to staying, and if the likelihood of achieving success (however defined) is low, those costs, including the lives lost, will be spent in vain.

People have complained that the Democrats have frittered rather than seizing on their mandate to end the war. But thecountry is not all that united behind the desire to end the war right away, and the confused politicking in Congress reflects this. Even so, what has been passed was tougher than what was proposed in the first days of the new Congress, and there will be other ways to express discontent with the war. Politics is messy and imprecise. Eventually, however, a rough approximation of what the people want (which is still evolving) will come close to prevailing.

I suspect the U.S. will be in Iraq until the end of the Bush presidency, unless he relents to save the Republican Party. But I suspect this unreflective man values his own legacy more than he cares for the party, and stubbornly believes it's tied up with being "tough" internationally. Too bad the country has to suffer from a desire that may well stem from personal insecurity.

Opera in New York

IT's not often that I regret not living in New York City (though it would be tempting if I had oodles of money), but the way the opera companies are shaping up, I suspect there will be some excitement in the next couple of years.

Last year Peter Gelb took over as general manager of the venerable Met, and did things like broadcasting operas on the jumbo screen in Times Square and also in selected movie theaters around the country. For the 2007-08 season, the Met has announced seven new productions -- Gluck's Ipegenie en Tauride, Philip Glass's Satyagraha, Donizetti's "Fille de Regiment" and "Lucia di Lammermoor," Verdi's "Macbeth," Britten's "Peter Grimes" and an English-language version of "Hansel and Gretel." Gelb started his tenure by having film directorAnthony Mighella direct "Madama Butterfly." He's also bringing back a recent production of Tan Dun's "The First Emperor." For the 2008-09 season they're trying to get Broadway singer Audra McDonald for Jophn Adams's "Doctor Atomic," about Robert J. Oppenheimer.

A lot of experiments in opera crash and burn, but it's important to keep trying new things. It looks as if the Met is going to be less stodgy than it usually is in the next couple of years.

So what does City Opera, the "little brother" or "opera of the people" do? It hires Gerard Mortier from the Paris National Opera. Mortier is viewed as an iconoclastic innovator, a reputation earned largely at Salzburg, where he modernized Wagner's operas, sometimes scandalously. He has also nurtured other innovative directors, making European opera more director-centric than diva-driven in recent years.

Opera should be exciting in New York in the next few years. I'll listen to the Met broadcasts and hope PBS carries some of the City Opera offerings. Or if some ventures go well, maybe I'll travel to New York from time to time.

Primary troubles?

Here's a nicely contrarian piece by Jonathan Cohn in the New Republic Online. Everybody is fretting about all the big states that are scheduling their presidential primaries next year for Feb. 5 or thereabouts. The fear is that with California, New York, Michigan, Illinois and Florida holding primaries on Super-Super-Tuesday, the race will be decided right then and there. Democrats fear that will be too hasty, that somebody with weaknesses (like Kerry) will be anointed before the faithful have the time to figure out that he (or she) is a disaster who can't win.

Cohn argues that this is hardly inevitable. He suggests it is possible that these early primaries will prolong the race rather than settle it. In California, at least, delegates will be assigned congressional district by congressional district rather than winner-takes-all statewide, and I think this is the case in some other states. The early results could be quite divided. Cohn even speculates that "In a larger field of candidates, each with an independent financial base, a front-loaded contest could conceivably push the nomination decision all the way to the convention itself -- producing a brokered convention, just like in the old days.

Well, it's possible

Monday, March 26, 2007

Nuclear changes

Here's a link to my most recent piece for It suggests that the old nuclear anti-proliferation treaties are pretty muchj extinct, and North Korea and Iran lnow it much better than most people are willing to admit.

Halting medical marijuana progress

Here's a link to the piece I did for the Sunday Register's Commentary section, on California's still-spotty implementation of thre medical marijuana law voters approved way back in 1996.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors has a patients' ID card, in compliance with SB 420, the state law that sets up an ID card system, on the agenda for April 17. I hope this piece deals with whatever rational objections members may have. Unfortunately, when it comes to marijuana, few objections are rational.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Au revoir, George Michael

He is playing it upbeat, but some of the stories I have read make me wonder whether George Michael, host of the long-running Sunday night show, "The Sports Machine," is a little bitter at having his show canceled after, I guess, some 27 years. I remember George as a sportscaster on one of the Washington channels back when I was living in Babylon-on-the-Potomac, then was happy when I encountered his Sunday night show. He pioneered the extended all-sports wrap-up show before ESPN was in existence. Whenever I have been traveling, staying in some hotel or motel on a Sunday night, "The Sports Machine" has been what seemed like a welcome little piece of home -- even though I knew it was produced across the country from my home.

Anyway, thanks for the memories, George. Hope you have more to offer.

On to Atlanta

It's not that easy to blog when you have guests for the weekend, but finally . . .

Needless to say, I'm pretty ecstatic that UCLA is back in the Final Four. Now Florida again. It's really pretty remarkable that both Florida and UCLA got to the Final Four again -- and almost too bad that they won't be able to play for the championship. So Saturday is key.

I may just be hoping and letting my prejudices guide my hopes, but it does seem to me that UCLA has been pretty tough in the tournament, giving them a decent chance to win it. A number of teams have had to come back from behind to win games this time around. But so far, UCLA has not relinquished a lead. Sometimes they've won ugly, as against Pitt, but they've managed to win one way or another. I was gratified at how nicely they handled Kansas, which I had feared was the class of the group. Now I hope I was right, and that Florida and whoever will seem easy by comparison.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Libertarian Great Divide

Interesting recent piece by Justin Raimondo at on Brian Doherty's new book, "Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern Libertarian Movement." We got a couple of copies in at the Register office, but I haven't read it yet. Brian spent a day or so at the Register while he was researching the book, and from glancing at the index, Freedom Newspapers and R.C. Hoiles were treated fairly extensively. That pleases me.

To be sure, the modern incarnation of the libertarian movement really got going in '68 or '69, but R.C. was one of those who kept the flame alive in the 1940s and 1950s, writing his daily editorials and columns and printing pieces (sometimes whole chapters of books) by the likes of Albert J. Nock, Isabel Paterson, Frank Chodorov, Rose Wilder Lane and others. Harry Hoiles, R.C.'s son, hired Bob LeFevre at the Colorado Springs paper and then was helpful in getting Bob's Freedom School in Colorado going. People like Harry Browne, Frank Chodorov, Roy Childs and a host of others lectured there, and a flock of students got a pretty solid grounding in the idea that the more a society relies on voluntary interaction the more civilized it is likely to be. R.C. also helpd Baldy Harper found IHS and Leonard Read found FEE. I have long felt that R.C.'s contributions have been unknown and unsung, especially among younger libertarians, but it looks as if Brian came pretty close to giving him his due.

Justin thinks that if the book has an overarching theme it is "the tension between the radical origins of the movement and its tentative, and often reluctant attempts to achieve 'respectability.' This comes up early, when Doherty gets into the subject of war revisionism. Back in the beginnings of the libertarian movement, starting -- says Doherty -- with Albert Jay Nock, war revisionism was a central theme." But nowadays hardly anybody wants to resurrect the shady origins of World War II or suggest that the "good war" might have been a mistake also.

What we're doing now, however, with and the Internet, is daily revisionism, daily questioning of those who manuevered us into war. When I was younger I cut my teeth on Harry Elmer Barnes, Charles Tansill, Justin Doenecke and other revisionists who explained how political leaders had lied us into past wars. Not all revisionism is up to the highest scholarly standards and some is over the top. But insofar as revisionsm consists of questioning "official" history and trying to tease out events the court historians don't include, then most good history has a whiff of revisionism and questioning the official version is almost always healthy.

I think familiarity with revisionists, some better than others, left me fully prepared to question the motives and the accuracy of current leaders from the first day they started beating the war drums. And we haven't been alone this time. Although Justin takes some swipes at Cato for going establishment in Washington, Cato's foreign policy people have been solidly against the Iraq war from the beginning, and I've valued their contributions as well as those of Lew Rockwell and the Mises Institute people.

Now Kansas

It wasn't quite a nailbiter, but it wasn't a game where you could relax and say, "We've got this thing in hand" until the final minute or so. But I'm inordinately pleased that UCLA won its game tonight against Pitt, by 9 points, which was the biggest margin of any of the games played tonight. Those guys are gritty! It took stepping up at the free-throw line, where the Bruins have been shaky all season. But tonight they made 23 of 26. I'm not sure, but they might have been outscored on the floor.

The game also seemed to live up to the pregame chatter about coaches. Ben Howland, the UCLA coach, came here from Pitt, where he had also taken the team to excellence with tough defense. Pitt's coach, Jamie Dixon was Howland's assistant at Pitt and before that at Northern Arizona and before that (I think) at UCSB, and the two are pretty close to being best friends. Both teams play the same kind of tough defense, but tonight UCLA made 'em when it counted. Pitt actually had some chances with easy shots they missed, but for the most part the Bruin defense was just stifling.

I've been concerned all along that Kansas is really the class of the tournament, but they didn't win easily tonight. Guess we'll see Saturday.

The game after, between Ohio State and Tennessee, kept me watching until literally the last second. Ohio State was down by as much as 20, but pulled ahead late in the second half. Then, whenever it looked as if the Buckeyes would pull away Tennessee would hit an unlikely shot to tie or go ahead by one. Very exciting but Ohio State hung on to win by one.

I really hope USC beats North Carolina tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Desertification of art

Here's where at least some of what you pay at the pump is going. Abu Dhabi is building a new art museum -- the models actually look pretty cool, with a flying saucer-like (or flattened mushroom?) roof -- for $108 million. A bigger expense, however, is licensing the name. It's paying the Louvre Museum in Paris $520 million for the right to name the new structure the Louvre Abu Dhabi. And that's just the beginning. In exchange for loans of art, advice on management and some special exhibitions, Abu Dhabi will pay the Louvre an additional $747 million over the next several years or so. The new museum is expected to open in 2012.

A number of people in France are outraged that the government would sell French tradition -- 4,700 people signed an online petition protesting the move. But the government is happy to have the money. So far the agreement only calls for rotating 200 to 300 artworks from the original Louvre to Abu Dhabi and back over 10 years, and four temporary exhibitions a year for 15 years. And providing management expertise and advice.

Don't know if the advice will include finding some other oil-rich nation with ambitions to be "world-class" to subsidize the Abu Dhabi museum once it gets established.

Mexico screws up oil

Sorry I didn't post a link to this NYT story earlier; now it's a pay-to-read. The story it tells is important, however.

Basically, it tells about how government control and politics have made Pemex, Mexico's nationalized oil company, which should have been a source of continuing revenue, a mess. Its production and proven reserves are falling. Mexico is still the second-largest supplier of foreign oil to the U.S. (after Canada), but exports are falling. At the present rate of decline it could soon have trouble meeting domestic demand.

The main reason is that the government siphons off most of the money for other purposes, leaving little for upgrading facilities, exploration, and even simple maintenance. Aging oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico simply allow natural gas to burn off because Pemex lacks the facilities to process it.

The story outlines any number of reasons, without coming to the conclusion or grappling with the implications, why government ownership of the means of production is a bad idea. Sure, the Mexican government is corrupt, but it isn't just a Mexican problem. Governments have strong incentives to extract as much money as possible from resource companies (Pemex supplies 40 percent of the Mexican government's budget) and to make agreements with unions that lead to grateful workers but high labor expenses and inflexible and inefficient work rules (featherbedding).

The government's incentive also is to postpone investment in future development since the government always "needs" maximum revenue now and the oil monopoly faces no domestic competition. Then, when maintenance has been neglected so things are really dilapidated, it becomes much more expensive to try to catch up and modernize. Whether politics will allow that now for Mexico is a dicey proposition. Mexico also outlaws joint ventures with foreign companies, which might have been a source of investment capital.

The existence of these incentives is one reason I don't worry all that much about Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. For a long time Venezuela's oil industry, although government-owned, was relatively free of political interference. Chavez, however, is intent on further socializing all aspects of Venezuelan life. The cushion provided by oil revenues has allowed him to do and advocate economically inefficient policies, but the more firmly he controls and politicizes the oil industry the more likely he is to screw it up and face declining revenues. Sad for Venezuelans but a relief for the U.S. and the rest of the hemisphere.

Four years and counting

Here's a link to the piece I did for this last Sunday's Register, to mark four years into the Iraq war -- longer, as I noted, than U.S. military involvement in World War II. After talking to Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Paul Salem from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a few others, I concluded that the United States is likely to have an influence, and perhaps a small one at best, on the near-future of Iraq. Cordesman put the chances of the "surge" succeeding -- at leading to a modicum of stability, not establishing a secular democratic state that could be a model for other Middle Eastern countries -- at less than 50 percent.

Paul Salem, who works for the most part at Carnegie's Middle East center in Beirut, was somewhat more optimistic. But he said that while the U.S. continued commitment played a role, especially at convincing Iran that the U.S. wouldn't be leaving while Bush is still president, the chief hope for stability in Iraq arises from the active diplomacy of Saudi Arabia, which brought Iranian president Ahmadinejad to Riyadh for a non-nonsense chat and got a commitment that Iran would tone things down in Iraq and Lebanon both. Iran wants to dominate Iraq at the end of the day, but it doesn't want to rule it directly, and domination won't be especially useful if there's still a full-scale civil war going on. But read the whole thing.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Freeway final?

I'm not the first to notice, but the brackets are aligned so that it is just theoretically possible that USC and UCLA could meet in the NCAA basketball championship game. It's a long way from a slam-dunk. UCLA has been less consistent than I would like, with a tendency to lose concentration against lesser teams, though that shouldn't be a problem from now on. North Carolina, USC's next foe on Friday, is a No. 1 seed, but hasn't looked all that dominant in the tournament so far. Meanwhile, USC has actually been more impressive than UCLA in tournament games so far.

Just putting down a marker in case it happens. Wouldn't that make the ACC, which fancies itself the basketball class of the country but has only one representative left in the field of 16, feel wonderful? Note that the Pac-10 still has three reps, and Oregon has seemed to peak at the right time also.

Futile mission for Rove

In this article, Karl Rove claims that "The president's attitude is, 'History is going to write the legacy long after we are all dead or in no position to affect it -- so why worry about it?'" Sure. That's why Bush keeps trying to compare himself to Truman or Roosevelt or even -- aargh! -- Washington, whose signal contribution (besides leaving after two terms, setting a healthy precedent) was to warn against unnecessary foreign entanglements.

Whether Bush cares or not -- and you know he does -- Rove is busy trying to spin future perceptions, as the rest of the article details. He gives speeches talking about how subsequent presidents adopt institutions and customs created by previous presidents and that the "Bush doctrine" -- preventive action against bad regimes and treating those who harbor terrorists like terrorists -- will have a lasting impact.

I suspect Karl Rove, whom I've met and talked with (in a small group) at some length, is too smart to believe that. It's his job to burnish Bush's legacy, of course, in part because his own legacy is inextricably tied up with it. But somewhere in his heart of hearts he's wondering whether he picked the wrong man. To be sure, historians tend to admire presidents who make war rather than those who follow the Constitution, but I suspect Bush will go down as one of the worst in our history, and he deserves to. As one of my Washington sources put it (not for attribution, dammit), he's more equipped to be what he was at Yale -- a cheerleader -- than somebody making life-and-death decisions. To be sure, not all that many politicians are truly intellectually alive and inquisitive, but Bush's incuriosity is of perplexing proportions.

Portrait of Bob Levy

Here is an excellent piece from the Washington Post about Robert A. Levy, the lawyer who worked on the case until the D.C. Circuit Court declared Washington, D.C.'s virtually complete (except for retired policemen and a few others) on the possession of handguns -- except for those who had permits before 1976, when the law was passed.

I have known Bob Levy as a valuable source on legal issues for several years now. I also met him when he came to Southern California to give a talk a couple of years ago and had the opportunity to talk with him for several hours about this and that -- mostly the constitution and such, believe it or not. When he says, in this story, that it's not about the guns but the Constitution, I find that believable.

Bob is in a position to be sincere -- having sold a business some dozen years ago for a large amount of money and having not just no worries on that score but enough to finance this case entirely out of his own pocket. If it gets to the Supreme Court, which is possible, it could run into hundreds of thousands. He insisted on doing it himself, even though several gun organizations offered to help with the financing, because he wanted it to be clear that it was about the Constitution, not about the guns. As he notes, he doesn't own a gun -- he lives in a gated community in Florida and doesn't feel much need to have one for protection.

Bob has also been especially concerned about prisoners like Jose Padilla, the guy the feds captured as he got off a plane in Chicago, saying he was planning to let off a "dirty bomb" somewhere. The feds' story has changed several times since then, but the fact that they kept him incommunicado in a military brig for years before deciding -- just before the courts ordered it -- to try him in a civilian court, has not changed. Padilla is the most glaring example of the attitude in the Bush administration that they can just imprison anybody they please, without filing charges and without paying attention to ancient legal relics like habeas corpus. That offends Bob -- you can hear it in his voice when he discusses the case -- because it undermines one of the foundations of Western liberty and civilization.

This case is significant because Laurence Silberman of the D.C. Circuit explicitly acknowledged and defended the idea that the Second Amendment protects an individual right, not a collective right. The fact that the dependent clause on the amendment refers to militias has allowed would-be gun controllers to make the sadly intellectually disreputable case that thefounders only intended to protect the right to keep and bear arms as a collective right of militias and the states that sponsored them. As we noted in the Register's editorial on the ruling, the case that it's an individual right rather than a collective is supported by history, precedent and any non-tortured reading of the amendment.

This will probably get to the Supreme Court -- the D.C. government is likely to appeal for a hearing en banc (by the entire circuit court) as this was heard by a three-judge panel, the usual practice -- and the prospects for a favorable ruling are as good as they're likely to be in the near future. If it does and the right to keep and bear arms is affirmed as an individual right, Americans will have reason to be grateful to Bob Levy.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Atavistic impulses in sports

A commenter on a previous blog about UCLA basketball suggested that perhaps it is time to switch allegiance to UNLV, which has a pretty good team this year and seems poised for a run in the NCAA tournament -- having made it to the Sweet Sixteen, which happened subsequent to the comment.

I've long had a soft spot in my heart for UNLV (especially when Jerry Tarkanian was coaching), but when it comes to sports I rationalize that since sports are essentially atavistic activities, I will be essentially atavistic in my allegiances. Thus I remain insanely addicted to UCLA, even though it is (shudder!) a state institution, because I went there. (I made the decision to attend -- after Stanford unaccountably declined to offer me an immediate scholarship after I notified them I was a National Merit scholar -- before I was persuaded that state institutions are on balance a detriment to civilization even if some have their good points, and I developed an affection for the place).

So in sports my general rule, when UCLA is not involved, as a Southern California native, is to root for the most southerly or westerly team -- and as I explained to a friend who is a USC alum, when USC was playing Washington, southerly trumps westerly, probably for no good reason. Thus I'm pleased that USC and Oregon have moved to the round of 16, and I'm pleased to see UNLV in there too.

Bush changing positions

Here's a link to my most recent column for, in which I make the case that President Bush, whom I and many others have criticized for stubbornness and clinging to policies that don't work despite facts on the ground, is capable of almost monumental switcheroos. The most notable have been making a deal with North Korea after stating clearly that this administration wouldn't even talk to representatives of the Hermit Kingdom, and meeting with Iran over the chaos in Iraq. What might really have happened vis-a-vis the Middle East, however, is that Saudi Arabia got tired of watching the U.S. screw things up and decided to take open action rather than operating from behind the scenes as has been its preferred modus operandi.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Medmar old home week

In some ways yesterday's session at the Farmacy in West Hollywood was a bit like an Old Home Week for Southern California medical marijuana activists, a community with which I have been in touch only sporadically in the last couple of years. It was pleasant and more than a little exciting.

I brought Marvin Chavez up from Santa Ana. Marvin founded the Orange County Nurse-Patient-Doctor cooperative almost as soon as Prop. 215 passed -- and rather quickly found himself a target of law enforcement. He went to prison because of an excess of compassion (and/or lack of judgment). A would-be patient came to him with a convincing tale of back pain. (Marvin has ankylosing spondylitis, which means his vertebrae are progressively fusing, which gives him terrible pain. The prescription meds he was taking had unfortunate side effects, including making him feel depressed and unmotivated -- he stayed in his room for weeks at a time -- but cannabis relieves the pain without making him feel groggy.) The sympathetic patient who convinced Marvin to give him "just a little to hold me over until tomorrow," though it was too late to call the doctor to verify the recommendation, turned out to be an undercover cop. I covered his trial, which was a sad situation. F0rtunately old news now.

Anyway, Marvin was in a bit of a dither because the doctor who wrote his recommendation died in December and he has to find a new doctor because the rec needs to be renewed. Until he has that squared away he doesn't want to grow in his back yard or revive the OC club. However, seeing how well the Farmacy was doing, and seeing old friends and acquaintances cheered him incredibly and motivated him to work a little harder.

Also saw Bill Britt from Long Beach, and found he is now a court-certified marijuana expert, qualified to testify at trials. He did his first trial last week and was pleased at how smoothly it went. He says Chris Conrad is getting tired of testifying as often as he has been and may recommend Bill for trials in the future.

The Farmacy, which was raided by the feds but has reopened, looks to be extremely well-run, with numerous safeguards. More later.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Medical marijuana progress

It will take several posts to cover my day today. More than likely I will place material on the Orange County Register opinion blog, Orange Punch, before I am able to get all the details onto this blog, but here's a preview.

The comedian Drew Carey is working with the Reason Foundation to make a series of short films on various topics related to current challenges to liberty. The first short film they plan is on medical marijuana and they shot a good deal of the raw footage today at the Farmacy, a medicinal herbal and cannabis dispensing facility in West Hollywood. The plan now is to have this one completed by the Reason Weekend April 12-15, so they can show it to donors and friends. I have photos but haven't downloaded them to this computer (at home) yet.

Anyway, Drew Carey, who turns out to be an extremely nice guy, interviewed at least a dozen people, including the proprietors of the Farmacy, Steph Sherer of Americans for Safe Access, Marvin Chavez, William Britt (both patients and activists), several other patients -- and me, as author of the book "Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana." I donated a copy of the book to the Farmacy and gave one to Drew. I talked with him on camera about a variety of topics including the evidence for medical efficacy, why I think a clear reading of federal law would make marijuana legal for medical purposes at the federal level, and possible objections to medical marijuana. Fifteen minutes of interview will probably lead to 15 seconds in the final cut, but it was a great experience. I learned about a good deal of activity of which I had not been fully aware. More later.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Bush's Latin American fiasco

Here's a link to the Orange County Register's editorial on President Bush's current trip to Latin America. We conclude that it is largely a waste. Even though the administration denied it, everybody saw it as an "anti-Chavez" trip, designed to reduce the influence of the Venezuelan caudillo. If anything, however, it enhanced Chavez's profile, as almost anybody could have predicted.

By stressing how much more the U.S. is giving in aid to Latin America, Bush reinforced the notion that Latin America is poor because the U.S. is stingy, whereas the main problem is addiction to "crony capitalism" that benefits mainly the politically connected. Latin America should give genuinely free markets a try, but President Bush (to put it mildly) is not the guy to deliver a nuanced message.

On a personal note, I was chagrined to see pictures of Brazilian president Lula da Silva being hugged by President Bush. Everyone in our office remarks that Da Silva looks just like me, and I got a few good-natured questions this morning about where I had been over the weekend when photos of Da Silva were on almost every front page.

UCLA resting on laurels?

Maybe I just didn't have the heart to blog earlier about UCLA's disappointing loss to Cal in the Pac-10 tournament. Whereas during most of the season UCLA's defense was stifling, in this game Cal seemed to be able to score at will. When the Bruins came back to tie it in the second half I expected them to start pulling away, but they never did, and Cal simply dominated in the overtime. Then Cal lost to Oregon, which went on to win the tournament and could be on a serious roll going into March Madness.

Even having lost their last two games, looking pretty bad in both of them, the Bruins got a No. 2 seed in the West region, meaning they'll have to go through Kansas (or somebody who beats them). This can certainly be justified by their record (26-5), but the last two losses were troubling. In fact, all their losses were troubling. They seemed to lie down. They're vulnerable to a zone defense; when they encounter one they seem to forget how to penetrate to the paint and shoot or kick out.

I suspect UCLA in basketball is a little like Notre Dame in football; they end up higher in the national rankings than, perhaps, they truly deserve. The reputation from decades ago, all the way back to the Wooden era, seems to add a halo effect. Notre Dame this year, for example, had a mediocre-to-good football team, but every time they won a game they would be catapulted to higher than they deserved in the polls.

To be sure, UCLA did get to the final game last season, and Darren Collison most games (though not every game) turned out to be a good substitute for Jordan Farmar, who left after his junior year for the Lakers. But this year's team just hasn't been as consistent as I would like. And they don't seem to have mastered all the intangibles that result in a killer instinct when it's time to put a game away.

Naturally, I'm hoping for better things in the Big Dance.

Oprah's school too strict?

Since I wrote in praise of Oprah Winfrey's efforts to establish a leadership school for girls in South Africa not long ago, it seems only fair to note this story, which is critical of the school. Parents are saying the rules at the boarding school are too strict, especially when it comes to visits from parents and relatives. The girls are allowed to receive visitors only once a month (previously it was once every two weeks), and cellphones and e-mail correspondence are not allowed during the week. They are also not allowed sugary treats -- the fare from the cafeterias is fruit, yogurt and sandwiches -- so one mother predicts that when they're on holiday for a month in April "they'll be stuffing themselves with sweets and chocolates."

I don't have a way to assess this independently, obviously. I can see strict rules; they're trying to give girls who before the school may have had potential but not opportunity the best chance to succeed and make something important of their lives. And judging by Oprah's show about the school, one of the advantages of the school is precisely that it takes the girls out of less-than-ideal, even tragic environments.

On the other hand, perhaps they have gone overboard in the rules department. There's always a temptation to substitute rules for more natural kinds of discipline, e.g., if you don't work hard you're likely to fail.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Media backlash from Scooter case

Sorry I couldn't connect to the blogger site last night, but we're connected now.

A number of people have been writing about an outcome of the Scooter Libby trial I blogged about several weeks ago. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post covers many of the bases in this piece, quoting Jim Warren, a Chicago Tribune managing editor: "There is an all-too-unsettling nexus between the political and media elite. This was a nice little window into the mutual obsession with one another. There's the infatuation with power which we all have and which was vividly underscored, especially those of us at elite institutions."

In the future, at least for a while, promises of confidentiality by journalists are likely to be greeted with a bit more wariness by officials. Perhaps requests for anonymity by officials will be greeted with more wariness by journalists. The cozy relationships won't be quite so cozy.

On balance this might not be so bad. I recognize that cultivating and using anonymous sources can sometimes be the best or even the only way for journalists to do what should be their real job: informing the public about what the government is doing with their money and their trust. But there's way too much anonymous sourcing in Washington reporting, and most of it has little or nothing to do with rooting out the truth, but with being used by an official to launch a trial ballon, dish an opponent or score a point in intra-bureaucratic power struggles. The public could do with a lot less of such gamesmanship.

As the latest scandal fades, of course, those all-too-cozy relationships will reassert themselves. But even a short period where officials and reporters are a bit more wary of one another can't be all bad.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Prison reform possible?

Here's a link to a piece I did for this last Sunday's Register on the prospects for prison reform in California. It's been a bad bet for the last several years, but things may be converging. California has 173,000 prisoners in facilities built to house about 80,000. A federal judge has threatened to impose a cap and maybe take over the whole system if something isn't done by June to alleviate overcrowding.

Even the prison guards union -- with whose top leaders we met a couple of weeks ago, at which time I found myself surprised to like them -- are for a sentencing commission, one that would likely lead to fewer prisoners.

Perhaps it's not all that surprising. The prison guards have become enough of a political powerhouse to increase their salary and benefits beyond what anyone would have thought imaginable 10 or 15 years ago, and their members have to live with the effects of overcrowding, which have the potential to be physically dangerous to them, not to mention constant stress.

The best reform, of course, would be to repeal the drug laws, which would reduce real crime significantly. I suspect that's not in the cards anytime soon, though I haven't given up hope for my lifetime.

Oboist jailed for victimless "crime"

To me, this story is a real desk-pounder. H. David Meyers, 62, is a skilled classical oboist, having performed in Carnegie Hall at 15 and recorded last year, with the St. Persburg Philharmonic, a Beethoven concerto whose score had been lost for almost 200 years.

But classical music provides only a few practitioners a decent full-time income, alas. Meyers had a sideline. Between 2001 and 2004, according to court papers, he operated a business called Sports International that solicited and helped place thousands of bets on sporting events. It was apparently fairly sophisticated, Working with his brother-in-law, Meyers gave prospective bettors passwords and access to a toll-free phone line that connected them to a betting parlor in Dominica.

Meyers copped a plea to spare his family, he says, but he told a reporter he still doesn't think he had done anything illegal. He was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison.

Whether he did anything illegal or not, he didn't do anything I view as wrong. People bet on sporting events all the time. Some of them may become seriously addicted to gambling and wreck their lives, of course, but not all of them. The governors of states place friendly wagers on the outcome of the Super Bowl and other events. States sponsor and run lotteries.

Making such activities illegal only makes them more lucrative and pays premiums to those most skilled at concealment and sometimes (if deemed necessary) violence. Gambling would do considerably less social harm if it were all out in the open. Illegality also protects those gambling interests favored by the State from competition, which may be the real reason for making some kinds of gambling illegal.

So here's a talented musician still in what is something of a prime for classical musicians with his life ruined -- he's been forced to sell the house with the government taking whatever profit ensues -- because he did what the best businessmen do -- provide a service that people want and are willing to pay for.

Moroccans lured to Iraq

This story illustrates one of the reasons I think, despite the uncertainties and difficulties entailed, it is important for the United States to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible. It relates that about two dozen men from the city of Tetouan in Norocco have traveled to Iraq to participate with al-Qaida in insurgent/terrorist activities against American and Iraqi government forces. At least two suicide bombers have been identified through DNA evidence as being from Morocco. Moroccan authorities say "they have identified more than 50 volunteers who have gone to Iraq since 2003, and many more are believed to have made the journey undetected."

Not only are these young Moroccans creating trouble in Iraq, they are gaining valuable experience in guerrilla warfare and other terrorist-related activities. Some of them will probably be killed, or will kill themselves, in Iraq, but not all of them will. They may return to their home countries or they may go elsewhere after spending time in Iraq. Whatever they do they will have been "blooded" and have gained experience that will make them more effective terrorists in the future.

Moroccan authorities report that al-Qaida has established a stronger presence than ever before since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Al-Qaida uses the U.S. presence in Iraq as a recruiting tool. Without that presence, what would be the incentive for young Moroccans to travel 3,000 miles to better learn the tradecraft of terrorism? The U.S. presence in Iraq also seems to have energized militants not just in Morocco but throughout northern Africa.

Several groups that used to operate independently have announced that they have put aside their differences to become "al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb," one name for the African lands north of the Sahara. It claimed responsibility for a coordinated attack Feb. 13 on seven targets, mostly police stations, near Algiers, where six people were killed.

Most observers by now should know that the idea that luring terrorists from around the world to Iraq so we can kill them all is a side benefit of the war in Iraq, as some administration apologists used to contend not so long ago, is the stuff of fantasy. Instead, as happened in Afghanistan when the Soviets occupied it, when the U.S. subsidized the insurgents and supplied them weapons, we may be helping to give birth to an even more widespread and international terrorist movement by providing a place for would-be terrorists from around the world to gain experience and skills.

More on Libby verdict

Here's a link to the Orange County Register's editorial on the Libby verdict. There may be similarities to a post I did earlier, but this covers a few more aspects.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A Chomsky overview

Noam Chomsky is generally to be taken with several grains of salt; he almost always finds the United States to blame for problems in the world but sometimes views U.S. adversaries the same way most Americans view the U.S.: generally benign if occasionally prone to blundering. Nonetyheless, I think there's a fair amount of value in this recent interview. Notably, he points out thatIran -- those who really run things while Ahmadinejad makes outrageous statements -- supports the Arab League position on Israel-Palestine, which is a two-state solution. He doesn't think the U.S. will attack Iran, but he does believe the U.S. is purposely stirring up hostility toward Iran (not hard to accomplish) and probably supporting insureectionist movements. I don't know if that's true but I wouldn't be surprised.

I, Robot coming?

Here's a thought-provoking piece by Jim Amrhein, a contributing editor to Whiskey and Gunpowder. He worries about the increasing prevalence of cameras and other surveillance systems in virtually every public place in some American cities. These cameras aren't monitored in real time, for the most part, but robot or robot-like technology programmed to look for suspicious patterns might be able to do it. Could a robotic monitor's identification of suspicious behavior patterns constitute probable cause enough for the cops to swoop down and nail you before you do whatever evil deed you were contemplating? Might increasingly sophisticated technology make the whole concept of probable cause operationally obsolete?

I'm not quite as concerned as Amrhein is, but his essay raises troubling concerns worth thinking about, and perhaps talking about before the society of constant surveillance on everybody gradually becomes a reality.

Why Scooter was convicted

This piece from Byron York at National Review Online is about as good a piece of instant analysis as I've seen on the Scooter Libby case. Libby was convicted (on four of five counts) mainly because the jury found Tim Russert more credible.

I have little doubt that after former ambassador Joe Wilson wrote the piece questioning the African uranium connection with Saddam (July 6 2003 in the NYT if I remember correctly), that Libby, probably at Cheney's behest, among other administration figures, participated in a full-court press to discredit Wilson, and that suggesting that Wilson's trip to Africa happened because Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked at the CIA, possibly raising questions as to whether Wilson was really the best guy to take the trip (as Robert Novak suggested in his Juily 14 2003 column) was part of the campaign.

I question whether prosecuting Libby for lying to or misleading the FBI and the grand jury was a good decision. Revealing the identity of a covert CIA agent (the CIA doesn't comment on who is clandestine, which is convenient for all concerned) is against the law, but nobody was charged with that crime. And special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald knew by October 2003 that Libby wasn't the source of the leak to Novak; rather, former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage was (confirmed by White House political guru Karl Rove, with whom Novak apparently chatted several times a week).

Now misleading FBI investigators is hardly nice, but if the prosecutor already knows Libby wasn't the leaker, is it obstruction of justice? Why was Libby targeted with FBI questions and grand jury appearances after Fitzgerald already knew Armitage was the leaker and (probably) knew he wasn't going to prosecute him. Did he need a scalp for his belt after all the fooforaw? Is that justice?

I hold no brief for Libby, who was a significant player in getting us into this stupid war in Iraq (and whom I didn't find likeable the time I met him, when he was working for Chris Cox). But I think he's been made the fall guy here. I wish a juror had held out for justice over the strict application of the law, which might have been more appropriate here.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Beyond Ballots or Bullets

I'm not going to be able to make this conference, but I wish it well.

Kevin Van Horn is hosting a conference this weekend in Provo Utah to "explore non-electoral, nonviolent strategies to decrease the state's ability to coerce us and increase our own powers of resistance." It will explore tactics such as independent communities, businesses the state can't see or control, counter-economics and nonvioloent action and much more.

The date is March 10-11, at the Hampton Inn in Provo Utah. Basic information is here. Registration information (the cost is $75) is here. Kevin Van Horn wrote an interesting piece called "The Strategic Estimate," posted here.

I've long thought that non-political action is the best route to a free society. It's one reason I work mostly through writing and persuasion. I'll try to stay abreast of Kevin Van Horn's efforts and report progress if any.

Broadcast Censorship-plus in China

China has drastically liberalized much of its economy, making it in some respects freer of bureaucratic supervision than the U.S. economy. Lest anyone think this makes China a free country, however, this story about a stern warning delivered to Chinese broadcast media, should confirm that politically, China remains a communist country.

The Chinese legislatures are meeting next month and the Communist Party is preparing for its 17th national congress (held every five years) in the fall. The top authorities, up to president Hu Jintao, want everything to go smoothly, so nothing mars the impression that the application of rubber stamps to the leadership's desires will appear to be the deepest will of the sacred people. So the party propaganda department issued a directive on Jan. 12.

"In foreign countries, televisions are privately owned and you can broadcast whatever you want," said Wang Weiping, head of the series division at China's State Television, Film and Broadcasting Administration. "But in China, television is the mouthpiece of the party and the people. This is its main mission, and entertainment is secondary."

That lays it on the line, doesn't it?

Li Dongshen, deputy head of the propaganda department, told assembled TV executives: "To create a proper atmosphere for the 17th party congress, we should sing high praises for socialism. We should sing loudly the main themes of our nation."

This is censorship and dictation of content with a heavy hand. In some ways, however, it is different largely in degree from the way television and radio are regulated in the United States. Here the Federal Communications Commission, based on the convenient myth that the airwaves belong to "the people," issues broadcast licenses and can revoke them. Stations are required to prove that they serve "the public interest" in ways defined by government authorities. Offering programming people want to listen to or watch is not enough.

Our political system is not (yet) as centralized and jealous for unanimity that the authorities don't dictate that broadcast outlets sing the high praises of Bush. But the broadcast media are not really free, despite the First Amendment.

Will Bush break the pattern?

Here's a link to my most recent piece for In it I note that President Bush having such low approval ratings right now could be viewed as unusual, in that when historians are asked to rate presidents they almost invariably choose wartime presidents as "great or near-great." In hoping Dubya doesn't recover in the eyes of historians (as Truman did) I also hope against hope that the dire results of this current war lead historians to reassess whether starting a war or even leading the country during wartime are true measures of greatness. Upholding the Constitution -- apparently a much more difficult job, considering how infrequently it has been done -- might serve as an alternative measuring rod.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Chavez to jail price control violators?

This NYT story from a couple of weeks ago is an extreme illustration of the general rule that in government nothing succeeds like failure. Create a government program that makes a problem or perceived problem worse, and there's no inkling of abandoning it; rather, the failure is always taken as evidence that the government hasn't been ceded enough power, or hasn't acted aggressively enough.

The story here is about Venezuela's major-domo. The poor guy: "faced with an accelerating inflation rate and shortages of basic foods like beef, chicken and milk, President Hugo Chavez has threatened to jail grocery store owners and nationalize their businesses if they violate the country's expanding price controls."

The eternal promise of government is that it can repeal the laws of economics, but it never manages the trick. Anybody who has come within a mile of Econ 101 (or thought for a moment or two) knows that the quickest way to create a shortage of a good or service is to control its price below what it would be in a free market. When goods are in shortage, especially basic goods, the real (distinct from the legislated) price shoots up. In a free market this is an effective signal to producers to produce more, and when they do, increasing the supply, the price goes down. Supply-and-demand just isn't that hard to grasp.

If instead of letting the price rise one takes steps to keep it artificially low or to drive it lower, the result is to worsen rather than to alleviate the shortage. But a government, particularly one like Hugo Chavez's, which is attempting to assert full-fledged draconian control over as much of Venezuelan life as possible (in which it is different only by degree, in that it is actively seeking excuses to nationalize businesses as a matter of openly stated current policy, from other governments, including our own) simply threatens to become more draconian.

If a government program succeeds, or appears to succeed, that's evidence more resources should be thrown its way. If it fails, that's even better for government with a yen to grow.

U.S. Attorneys: scandal or blunder?

Dahlia Lithwick at has a pretty interesting piece on the Bush administration's purge of at least eight (8) U.S. attorneys around the country. I admit that I haven't followed the issue too closely, but it has shown some staying power as an issue, especially with some of the fired officials subpoenaed to testify before congressional committees.

Dahlia (I've enjoyed her writing for several years, although the couple of times I've seen her on news shows I find something -- can't pinpoint what -- offputting about her) suggests that from what we know now it appears it was both scanadalous and a sign of incompetence.

Money quote: "Did they really think nobody would notice? That nobody would care? Does some incredibly cunning long-term objective justify the short-termfallout? Or was this simply a case of bumbling incompetence?

"A little digging on the subject leads me to conclude that it's a bit of both."

The gist, as best I can synopsize it, is that it could well have been done to "qualify" certain favored loyalists for future federal judgeships, a priority for Karl Rove and others. But the Bushies have had a Congress disinclined to conduct serious, critical oversight for six years, and haven't yet adjusted to the fact that the opposition party now controls Congress. So they fumbled the way it was handled -- most notably in initially criticizing the performance of those pushed out when performance was probably not a factor.

North Korea and trust

Wow! Fred Kaplan of was even more bitter/cynical than I was initially in response to the news that the Bush administration now acknowledges that it has such a low level of confidence in intelligence/speculation that North Korea had or was about to have an active enriched-uranium program presumably directed at creating material suitable for a bomb (the bomb they exploded was plutonium-based, and their plutonium program was not a surprise).

Fred Kaplan's conclusion, taking what the Bushies had to say in 2001 and what they say now into account is that "it shows that Bush and his people will say anything, no matter whether it's true, in order to shore up a political point. It means that U.S. intelligence is completely corrupted."

I would add that insofar as this is true (and I think it largely is), it doesn't really matter whether or not the Bushies sincerely believed, in 2001 for example, that the North Koreans had a viable nuclear-enrichment program or doubted that it had one but consciously decided to inflate a minuscule percentage into better than a probability. Whether they sincerely believed what they said or were knowingly lying, they were using intelligence selectively to support their policy preference of the moment -- disengagement in 2001, engagement in 2007 -- based more on what they wanted to be true than what they believed to be true.

The bottom line is that the American people can have no confidence in what the Bush people say.

I cling to a precarious hope that we are in the midst of a long, wrenching reform procedure that may in the next few years make the American intelligence "community" closer to what it is theoretically supposed to be: a source of reasonably objective, or at least mostly apolitical information, along with a frank assessment of the confidence the agencies have in their assessments, and enough transparency to allow outsiders occasionally to check their chains of reasoning. But I'm more likely to be wrong than right in this, I suspect.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Arthur Schlesinger, RIP

I wasn't all that crazy about Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the liberal/progressive historian who died Wednesday at 93. Although he was a fine writer and for the most part a decent historian, he was a tad partisan for my taste, and partisan on behalf of an ideology with which I have little sympathy. But he was undoubtedly a significant figure in American intellectual life. If you want to read a solid, sympathetic and appreciative piece about him, this article by historian Sean Wilentz is a good start. It also includes an insightful discussion of the differences between "present-minded" historians who tend to find lessons about current controversies in their historical researches and those who strive to keep their opinions about present-day controversies out of their work,

Congress had another choice

This oped piece by former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee is a welcome reminder that back in October 2002, when the Senate was considering the resolution authorizing something like war, there were more than two choices available, beyond giving the president what amounted to a blank check or refusing to do so.

Sen. Carl Levin offered a substitute resolution, one that called for United Nations approval before force could be authorized. As Sen. Chafee writes, the resolution was "nimble: it affirmed that Congress would stand at the ready to reconsider the use of force if, in the judgment of the president, a United Nations resolution was not 'promptly adopted' or enforced. Ceding no rights or sovereignty to an international body, the amendment explicitly avowed America's right to defend itself if threatened." It was defeated by about the same margin by which the ultimate resolution was passed, with almost all those voting against Levin's resolution voting for the president's.

I still find the passing of resolutions of whatever character troubling. The Constitution give Congress, and only Congress, the power to declare war. It's not as if this were an emergency situation in which there was an attack that had to be responded to immediately. There was time for a decision on whether vto declare war. Congress -- as it has since World War II -- abdicated this responsibility. Unless it regains a sense of its constitutional responsibility we are in fairly constant danger of being plunged into unwise wars.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Blunder over North Korea?

It seems to me that this is a very important story. As the London Telegraph reports, Bush adminstration officials are saying that it looks as if the U.S. blundered badly, back in 2002, when it believed firmly some apparently shaky intelligence about North Korea pursuing an alternate route to nuclear-weapon-capable fuel, i.e., enriched uranium as well as plutonium. Now they're saying the reports, centered around a centrifuge acquired from Pakistani personal proliferator A.Q. Khan and aluminum tubes (shades of Iraq), were only of medium reliability and may have been misinterpreted. The confrontational U.S. reaction to the information may have triggered the accelerated North Korean quest for some kind of weapons it could test and thereby display.

What's significant here is that Bush administration (haven't seen a printed identity yet) officials are feeding this kind of information to the media. Does this kind of second-guessing about past decisions come from administration dissidents, or is it now the official administration policy?

What the episode illustrates is that being eager to be confrontational with overseas regimes is an ideological position rather than a geopolitical necessity. Neocons are generally eager to detect slights and betrayals on the part of hostile regimes that demand instant, usually violent confrontation. The only way a regime maintains respect and leadership, too many Americans believe, is to kick a little foreign tail or lob a few bombs whenever the opportunity presents itself. It's like the playground bully looking around the schoolyard for a fight just to remind everybody who the boss is.

In foreign relations it may not be unwise to make sure other countries know you have a big stick. But there are usually a dozen ways besides wielding the stick to handle a crisis or potential crisis. Sometimes if you do nothing the problem goes away; the sheer incomptence of nation-states is an often underestimated factor in geopolitics. Miscalculations are common. The Soviet empire fell more of its own weight than by any shrewd strategic moves by the West, although it's possible some moves by Reagan prodded the process along a bit.

McCain's Freudian slip

John McCain has already apologized for using the word "wasted" in reference to American lives lost in Iraq, saying he really meant to say "sacrificed," as he usually does. Barack Obama, who committed a similar slip earlier has defended McCain, saying he was sure that wasn't what McCain really meant.

Civic piety aside, I suspect it was more a Freudian slip than an inadvertant sloppy slip. Somewhere in his subconscious, and despite his stalwart support of the idea of the Iraq war, I would be amazed if John McCain and a lot of other people don't believe that the American lives lost in Iraq have been wasted. It's not difficult to see how one could believe so.

Instead of a quick and clean victory over Saddam Hussein leading to a stable and democratic Iraq, U.S. forces have faced an insurgency and a complex, violent situation that one is loath to describe as a "civil war" only because it's much more complex and baffling than a standard-issue civil war. In the process, Iran, perhaps the most significant real danger in the region, has been strengthened and emboldened, and unless the "surge" goes a lot better than most independent observers expect, the U.S. is being set up for what is likely to be, however our leaders choose to spin it, a humiliating defeat for the United States and a decline of our influence in the region.
How difficult is it to believe that lives lost in such an endeavor have been wasted -- as American lives have been wasted in other wars?

Some of us saw such a scenario playing out before the invasion -- not the details, which nobody could have foreseen, but the general outline -- and warned about it. Will anybody listen the next time our short-sighted leaders want to start another war?

Bob Woodruff's journey

I'm not much of a believer in fate; I think most coincidences are just concidences rather than cospiracies or the work of providence. But the case of Bob Woodruff of ABC News is almost uncanny. It's almost enough to make you believe that maybe, just maybe, he was wounded in Iraq so he would have the knowledge and insight to bring forward the story of how -- well, not always poorly, but haphazardly -- veterans of the Iraq war who have been wounded are treated. (I can say this in part because he has come back so remarkably from his head wound; I'm sure he's far from 100 percent of what he was before, but he seems remarkably composed and competent.)

His special Tuesday night on his experiences and the experiences of military people who have been wounded in Iraq and are fighting to return to a semblance of normality -- some successfully, some not -- was remarkably moving and good television.

America's wounded are part of the cost of this war that we don't appreciate fully. Largely because of medical advances, especially in battlefield medicine, a lot of soldiers and Marines who in previous wars would simply have died on the battlefield, are having their lives saved. Thus the number of Americans killed has been lower than would have been likely in previous wars of similar intensity.

Many of the wounded recover to some semblance of normality, but many will never be more than a shell of their former selves. Some will spend the rest of their lives in hospitals, others in wheelchairs or rehab and physical therapy. The government has little interest in the general public knowing much about this, especially if it would further erode public support for the war.

Appreciating Oprah

Like a lot of people for a long time I had a rather dim view of Oprah Winfrey, viewing her as a sort of vapid new-agey feel-good person who promoted pop-psychology without much substance. After my wife started watching her fairly regularly my attitude gradually started changing, especially after we got a DVR, which allowed her to sit me down in front of Oprah shows that had especially impressed her. I still can't fathom her enthusiasm for such an empty vessel as Maya Angelou, for example, but I now think she's a remarkably decent and pretty shrewd person who is using her vast influence (which she has earned, especially after taking more control of her show and putting a more personal stamp on it) mosty for good purposes.

What brought on this comment was Oprah's special Monday night on her Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls that she has just opened in South Africa. She has seen a problem and put her money and celebrity and influence where her mouth is. She has used her own money. The school is well-designed, both academically and architecturally. She knows she can't do everything, but she has done something, and the something is well-designed and constructive. Insteadof whining that the government hasn't done enough, she went ahead and did it herself. Whatever her politics -- she must have sympathies but she's shrewdly non-commital, which I think is mostly smart for her purposes, she is a functional libertarian -- take action and take responsibility yourself.