Monday, April 30, 2007

Crying Wolfowitz

It's not personal. If I knew him I might even like him; he's reputed to be smart and interesting. But from a policy perspective, there are few public figures I find more reprehensible than Paul Wolfowitz, now in trouble as president of the World Bank. Wolfowitz has been an architect iof neoconservative foreign policy theory and practice, and in his previous job as deputy defense secretary was one of the chief progenitors of the disastrous war in Iraq.

So there's a certain Schadenfreude in seeing him in trouble, with most of the World Bank staff lined up against him and plenty of people calling for his resignation. However, I'm not sure if the current beef is a valid one. It revolves around his girlfriend, an 11-year employee of the bank. When Wolfie came on, he informed the bank's ethics people of the potential appearance of a conflict of interest (though she wouldn't report to him) and the deal worked out was that she would transfer to the State Department with theWorld Bank paying her salary -- with a raise, since she was due for a promotion.

That's the public "scandal" that has precipitated his problems. I'm not sure they're warranted.

There's a more serious beef against Wolfie, that he's an incompetent manager, that his anti-corruption campaign is selective and perhaps hypocritical, that he's arrogant, that he's surrounded himself with cronies whose signal characteristic is loyalty rather than competence. I don't know enough to judge that charge. It may just be that he's shaken up the bureaucracy at the World Bank, a gaggle of overpaid and underworked stuffed shirts in an institution that probably does more harm than good.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Campaign finance deform

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the Wisconsin case argued this week before the Supreme Court. The issue was whether an ad run by Wisconsin Right to Life was a forbidden "issue ad" that actually (shudder!) seemed calculated to affect an election and was run too close to an election. To me the McCain Feingold law, which restricts political speech at precisely the time it is most important, is a clear violation of the First Amendment. but a previous court (no Roberts or Alito) didn't see it that way. It's probably too much to hope the Supremes will reverse that ill-considered decision.

A Laughlin interlude

Been away for a while. We got back last night from Laughlin, NV, where we joined Jen's brother Joe (Desert Hot Springs) and her other brother Steve (Atlanta -- well, Flowery Branch if you want to be more precise), to take in the annual Laughlin River Run, a festival for bikers that celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. Not being one, I find bikers fascinating. All the ones I've met, even those who look pretty tatooed and scary, are extremely friendly. There are more big bellies than chiseled torsoes.

The fascination -- love affair -- most bikers have with their bikes is something to behold. And they seem to love to get together. The authorities estimated there were about 70,000 bikers in and around Laughlin over the weekend, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised. There are get-togethers all around the country. At Laughlin here were large bikes and small, Hondas and Yamahas and BMWs and Suzukis, and custom models with names nobody but a specialist or infatuated enthusiast would know, but mostly Harleys. From what I can tell as an observer, U.S. bikers seem to have a love affair with Harley-Davidson.

There's a fascinating backstory here. Harley-Davidson, as far as I can tell, is the only U.S. company to use protectionism successfully, the way advocates of protectionism claim it is designed to work. You may know the mythology. An American industry or company gets into some kind of trouble and blames it on foreign competition. So the government imposes high tariffs or duties on the cheatin' furriners for long enough for the American company to get their act together and be able to compete internationally again.

What usually happens, of course, is that when shielded from competition a company or industry simply continues whatever got it into trouble and becomes even less competitive. So the "temporary" protection becomes eternal. The U.S. steel and textile industries are prime examples of industries that have used protectionism in this cynical way, so the "necessity" for protection is never-ending.

Harley-Davidson, however, did it the right way. Back in the 1980s the company had almost forgotten how to make good motorcycles and was getting pasted by Honda, Yamaha and other Japanese motorcycle makers. So it asked for protection and the government, always eager to grant favors with a political payoff, of course obliged. But instead of using protection to stay lazy, Harley-Davidson actually retooled, redesigned, revamped its management structure, and started making bikes people actually wanted. After a few years, it decided it could compete internationally again, and told the government it could lift the tariffs and other forms of protection. It did so, and since then Harley has gone from strength to strength.

This doesn't mean such protectionism is a good thing. Harley is the only company in U.S. history, so far as I know, to use it responsibly, and that was a matter of company pride.

The bottom line of the weekend was that we spent hours visiting the vendors' tents -- they took up the parking lots of at least three casinos -- including the more maverick vendors several miles downriver at the Avi -- and saw nothing that even resembled the product Jen and Joe have designed. They're planning to file a patent application this week and from then it's on to samples, prototypes and production.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Boycotting Fox

A number of Democratic candidates have announced that they would boycott candidate debates sponsored or co-sponsored by Fox News Channel. In this article John Judis, who is ususally pretty good, makes the most respectable case I've seen yet for doing so, but he falls short. Of course Fox isn't really "fair and balanced," but neither are the other networks. Boycotting Fox simp[ly makes the candidates look petty.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Yeltsin comments

Here are a couple of insightful assessments of Boris Yeltsin. Anne Applebaum, foreign affairs writer and Washington Post columnist, sees Yeltsin as a transitional figure (though given that he picked Putin one has to wonder what he was a transition to). Masha Gessen, listed by TNR as a Moscow journalist, sees him as Russia's first and last true democrat, but ultimately something of a tragic figure, especially in light of what has followed his presidency.

Internet campaigning

In 2004 Howard Dean pioneered successful fundraising on the Internet, and of course it's obligatory for every candidate (and every mouthy person like me who isn't running for anything) to have a Web site. We're seeing an expansion of political Internet use in this year's -- well, next year's, but who's counting in the Campaign Eternal? -- presidential race.

According to this interesting story, candidates are increasingly using MySpace, Facebook and YouTube as part of their campaigns, apparently largely to appeal to younger voters. There's Joe, age 64, from Delaware, who's a Scorpio -- Joe Biden, of course, "looking for friends." And Bill, 6'2", "Latino/Hispanic" and "straight, also a Scorpio. Bill Richardson. Before he thought better of it Mitt Romney filled in the blank for body type as "6'0"/Athletic" and Obama listed himself as "Slim/Slender" before he apparently thought it was too much like looking for a hookup, or at least a little creepy.

When I talked to Kent Snyder, campaign manager for Ron Paul, my own personal favorite of the candidates running, he told me that people would look back on this year as the year the Internet transformed presidential politics, almost as dramatically as TV transformed national politics in 1960 or so. And he's proud to say that despite having received almost no national publicity and having enough money to have a campaign organization and travel respectably but not much more, Ron is now #2 among GOP candidates on both MySpace and YouTube. We'll see whether that and being the only candidate during early debates who actually can believably claim he would be guided by the Constitution if elected will translate into primary votes

Monday, April 23, 2007

Will Russia ever have decent governance?

When I called Arnold Beichman, the venerable journalist, historian, and expert on Russia for reflections on the death of Boris Yeltsin, the somewhat rhetorical question he kept asking as we talked, was almost plaintive: Will Russia ever have a ruler who is not a scoundrel or a tyrant?

Arnold views Yeltsin as something of a hero, the man who disassembled the Soviet Union and became Russia's first -- and perhaps only? -- democratically-elected president. He was a flawed character, hard-drinking and not always possessed of the best judgment. But he unilaterally gave independence to Ukraine, which Russia had ruled for three and a half sometimes restive centuries, institutionalized freedom of speech and the press, and moved boldly toward establishing something of a free market by eliminating price controls in one fell swoop (which did hurt millions of Russians when the prices of necessities skyrocketed after decades of being kept artificially low). He was a small-d democrat and an instinctive liberator.

The privatization of state assets in Russia was, to say the least, imperfectly handled, with insiders picking up properties for pennies on the ruble and hundreds of crony-capitalist "oligarchs" making fortunes overnight. But Yeltsin, who never claimed expertise in economics, was guided in the process by many who claimed such expertise, including several highly overrated economists from the West. He was better at the big picture than follow-through, and while becoming popular on the promise to fight corruption, never quite had gumption or perhaps the real power to root it out. His health was sometimes suspect and he drank hard, which sometimes put him effectively out of commission for weeks. His reelection in 1996 was suspect, and every Russian election since has been rigged to a great extent.

And yet when the occasion called for courage, he could be magnificent. When hard-line old-school communists tried a coup against Gorbachev's reforms, there was Yeltsin mounting a tank outside the Russian White House, rallying the people and foiling the attempt, an act that could very easily have gotten him killed. Gorbachev wanted to reform the system to save communism. Yeltsin, who publicly quit the party in 1990, wanted to eliminate it. Gorbachev was the favorite of the intellectuals, but Yeltsin actually thought more deeply and more radically. If you 're interested in a pretty good appreciation of Yeltsin, warts and all, Leon Aron, who left Russia in 1978 and is at the American Enterprise Institute, and wrote a Yeltsin biography, has a pretty good one here.

Yet in the years before his resignation in 1999 he seemed to fall in with the corruption. He was a good political infighter, but that's what he seemed to enjoy more than policy. And he anointed Vladimir Putin as his successor.

Putin has consolidated power where Yeltsin tried to decentralize. At least 20 journalists, many of whom were doing investigations into government corruption or malfeasance, have been murdered, and investigations have gone nowhere. Putin has broken any oligarchs who challenged his rule, notably Boris Berezovsky. Whether Putin is really still a communist believer, as his background in the KGB suggests, or "just" an autocratic authoritarian, he is actively undoing a good deal of what Yeltsin tried, perhaps imperfectly, to do.

On April 14 he let it be known that dissent would be quashed by surrounding some 2,000 demonstrators, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov (who also opposed the communists) with some 9,000 security forces, who administered some beatings and broke up the crowd. It was probably not accidental that a Reuters crew was allowed to capture the events and disseminate them to the West and elsewhere, letting all kinow that the government is fully prepared to suppress even a whisper of dissent quite brutally.

There seems to be a cycle in Russia whenever decent governance and a semblance of civil oprder threaten to break through. Historical crises -- the collapse of the Soviet Union was one, as was the crushing of Russiand forces in World War I. That earlier crisis brought in a brief period of democratic governance floowed by Lenin, followed by Stalin, a moral monster willing to do whatever it took to estaboish stability and consolidate power. The recent crisis saw Gorbachev displaced by a period of optimism under Stalin, followed by Putin, followed by ... what? Likely another dark period in Russian history.

To some extent Russia's vulnerability to brutal rulers has to do with its geographic vulnerability. Catherine the Great said "I have no way to defend my borders except to extend them." But ruthless expansion begets near-madness. Catherine was at first regarded as enlightened, then became increasingly despotic. Ivan the Terrible started out as a reformer for his time and place.

So is Russia entering another dark cycle? It's difficult not to suspect so.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

More on medical marijuana

Here's a link to the Register's Friday editorial, which outlines what we think is going to be necessary to bring the county into line with state law concerning medical marijuana and access to it by patients. We were particularly shocked to learn that the policy of the sheriff's department when encountering a medical marijuana patient, is to confiscate both the cannabis and the recommendation letter. We believe that is clearly contrary to state law, and that if the sheriff's department doesn't change it's policy soon it's likely to face the same kind of lawsuit that got the California Highway Patrol to change its policies.

Iraq not going well

I saw a news story today suggesting that the U.S. military thinks things are going better in Ramallah than before. Perhaps that's so, but perhaps it's a temporary situation -- the "surge" looked to be leading to lower levels of violence until this week, when several blasts killed hundreds of Iraqis in a single day. Do you wonder that Iraqis look at the attention paid to the Virginia Tech shooting -- not that it wasn't uniquely horrendous for this country -- and wonder what Americans would do if we had steady casualties anywhere near close to what they are sustaining?

Unfortunately, I suspect that the negative trends in Iraq outweigh the positive. Here's a link to a piece I did last week for that explains some of the longer-term reasons for that opinion.


I've been reminded this weekend that another way to say "evergreen" is "constantly deciduous." I'm glad that our eucalyptus, pine and oleanders don't go bare in the winter (if the oleanders did, we'd have no privacy at all). But that means that they're dropping leaves and producing new ones all year long. As of tonight we have a lot fewer of those leaves on the ground, but it took hours and hours and there are still some we haven't gotten to yet.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Orange County and medical marijuana

What did I do with my day on Tuesday? I attended a full meeting of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Chairman Chris Norby -- a good guy, and I don't say that about very many elected officials -- put the issue of having the health department issue photo ID cards to medical marijuana patients on the agenda. Some 25-30 people came to testify in favor, so it took a long time. Here's the Register editorial that describes the outcome.

I was also interviewed by KCET, the Los Angeles public television station, for its 7:00 p.m. show, "Life and Times," sort of a local "news hour." That segment on medical marijuana is scheduled to be aired April 26.

Trade and China

Here's the Register's editorial on the U.S. decision to seek redress with the World Trade Organization for certain Chinese policies that arguably interfere with open trade. I'm not sure if it's appropriate or not, but better a WTO complaint than unilateral sanctions of some kind. It can be easy to forget that it wasn't so long ago that Japan was known for sending cheap trinkets to the U.S., but its economy matured (and then went into something like senility, though it seems to be recovering some). Free trade policies offer the most flexibility for letting the people who do the actual trading deal with changing conditions in other countries' economies rather than having the government set a rigid policy that will be outdated in a few years -- or maybe as soon as it's enacted.

Not much hope in Iraq

Here's a link to last Sunday's Register editorial, which discusses the situation in Iraq. It might not be hopeless, but it requires suspending belief to see it as other than pretty dire.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Saudi Arabian assertiveness

Saudi Arabia, which normally makes its influence felt behind the scenes, has been unusually assertive of late, as I wrote a few weeks ago. It brokered a deal between Fatah and Hamas in Palestine, called Iran's Ahmadinejad over for a dressing-down, hosted the Arab League summit, and just recently branded the U.S. "occupation" in Iraq "illegal."

Here's a reasonably good discussion of Saudi Arabia's recent moves by Rachel Bronson of the Chicago Coouncil on Global Affairs, author of "Thicker than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia." She notes that part of the explanation is that "With the United States regionally hamstrung and President Bush domestically neutered, [King] Abdullah has clearly decided to take matters into his own hands."

I think that puts it too kindly. I suspect Saudi Arabia has watched Dubya (ironically the son of one of Saudi Arabia's best American friends) blunder in Iraq and elsewhere and decided that as long as he is president the Americans are going to be hopeless -- flailing like an overgrown baby in a room full of delicate crystal, spreading instability and resentment wherever they go in the Middle East. The Saudis' other concern, of course, is Iran, which it has been watching guardedly for 30 years. The Saudis really don't want Iran to get nuclear weapons and become the clearly dominant power in the region, and the American intervention (which gave Iran influence in Iraq that it could only dream of before) and posturing is making such an eventuality all the more likely.

Lukacs on patriotism

Here's another brief excerpt from John Lukacs' fine book on George Kennan. Lukacs notes that Kennan "was a patriot and not a nationalist: because patriotism is defensive, while nationalism is aggressive; because patriotism is traditionalist, while nationalism is populist; because patriotism is love of one's land and history, while nationalism is a viscous mass that binds formless masses together. A patriot will be concerned with his nation's faults (Chesterton: "my country right or wrong is saying: my mother drunk or sober")."

Somebody once said that patriotism is love of country while nationalism is dislike of other countries. There's truth there, but I think Lukacs' formulation is a little more elegant.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Idealism and realism

I wrote in a previous post about the importance of realism in foreign policy. I'm indebted to John Lukacs, in his excellent new book on George Kennan, for a somewhat more sophisticated discussion that I'm happy to lift in its entirety for your delectation He speaks of scholars who:

"were wont to contrast Kennan [who criticized the "legalistic-moralistic" approach] 'the realist' to the 'idealist' category of American foreign policymakers. One half of that fixation is correct, but the other half is not. 'Moral' and 'ethical' are not quite the same things. Perhaps he should have coined the term 'legalistic-moralizing' rather than 'legalistic-moralistic,' but that is not the main issue. Kennan's view of foreign policy and of the world and indeed of human nature was a moral one. And the American predicament, to this day, is the failure to understand that the opposite of idealism is materialism, not realism; indeed, that idealism and realism are the best possible combination; that history is made by what people think and believe and that the entire material organization of the world is but the superstructure, a consequence of that."

I recommend the entire book highly.

Oh, the horror!

Differences between a libertarian like me and a more standard-issue conservative? Here's a fretful editorial from the Wall Street Journal wringing its hands over all the subpoenas Congress has been serving on the White House. The subhead sums it up: "Congress's real goal is crippling the Bush Presidency" [note the worshipful and entirely unnecessary capitalization]. The Journal's editorialist harrumphs:

"Democrats are trying to usethe manufactured outrage over the entirely legal sacking of Presidential appointees to insert themselves into private White House deliberations. Mr. Bush needs to draw line somewhere, and fast ..."

The Journal seems to think it would be sad to cripple the Bush presidency. I think it would be wonderful. I was equally joyful when the Clinton presidency was crippled. I only wish the crippling would be permanent, but unfortunately most Americans seem to want to give a new president the benefit of the doubt. For my taste the presidency, in both parties, has become entirely too imperial. Let Congress root around to its heart's content in the White House and dig up as many embarrassments, real and imagined, as it can find.

Blacksburg and Gun Control

After every tragic incident the debate over gun control predictably fires up again, although it doesn't seem as intense this time. Just as some people think we can eliminate evil and irresponsible behavior by banning some material things -- drugs -- some people seem to think we can eliminate crime and violence by banning or severely regulating or banning some other material things -- guns. Thus is magical thinking, not analysis or serious policy, in both cases.

This Zogby Poll is the first post-Blacksburg poll I'm aware of on the subject and it seems to reflect a certain amount of common sense. Some 59 percent of Americans say they don't think stricter gun laws would have prevented this massacre. To be sure, a majority also thinks more guns in more hands wouldn't have prevented the massacre either. This is actually fairly sensible as well.

John Lott's "More Guns, Less Crime" thesis is true in a general sense, and there's simply no question that wherever concealed-carry laws or "must-issue" permit laws have been passed crime has not increased (as controllers always predict) and in most states it has declined, although not very dramatically. Even thouigh the Virginia Tech campus (unlike most of Virginia) was designated a "gun-free zone" -- one of those hapless feel-good policies colleges are susceptible to -- so the shooter could be pretty sure no other armed people would be around to challenge him, it's simply impossible to know whether having a more liberal approach to guns on that campus would have stopped this shooting spree.

Even if it were allowed, it's unlikely many students or professors would be packing as an everyday matter. And even if one of them were, it's not assured he or she would have the presence of mind or coolness to stop the shooter. It's different in a crisis situation than at the shooting range. Most cops, who are trained, aren't especially good shots, which is one reason they tend to empty their weapons when they decide to shoot. So believing that having less restrictive gun policies probably wouldn't have stopped this particular psychopath is hardly an unreasonable position to take.

Here's a remarkably sensible discussion of gun control from the Economist's blogger, Megan McArdle, writing on Andrew Sullivan's blog.

The encouraging thing about the Zogby poll is that solid majorities doubt gun control would do much good, and the position solidifies as people get older. That could change if the controllers crank up the propaganda machine, but the case is weak and the other side is better positioned than in years past.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Northern Ireland and Iraq

I don't think many have commented on what seems an obvious lesson to be drawn from the recent welcome and remarkable development in Northern Ireland. Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein and Protestant firebrand Ian Paisley actually sat in the same room with cameras aimed at them and agreed to form a joint administration for Northern Ireland to be instituted May 8. On the one hand you can be disgusted at the two, as Christopher Hitchens obviously was, for keeping the mutual killing going far too long when these two personally might have done an agreement years ago and saved a good deal of bloodshed. Or you can choose to be pleased that there seems to be a resolution at last.

The significance as we look at current civil war-like situations -- Iraq, anyone -- is that it took about 40 years to bring this latest episode in "the troubles" to a resolution (being optimistic; snags could still arise between now and May 8). Culturally and genetically the two sides in the Northern Ireland divide were very similar -- except for some being Catholic and some being Protestant, of course.

Much of the blame for keeping the struggle going can be laid at the feet of pigheadedness on the part of leaders, of course, but those hostilities weren't all generated by opportunistic leaders. Sometimes it just takes a long time for most everybody to get so tired of the violence as to be ready for it to end. Almost every society contains small groups of people who see violence as a way to advance their agenda and are willing to carry it out, and they can disrupt a society effectively even if the vast majority are sick of their stuff.

There may be more differences than parallels, but if anything the differences seem to militate on the side of a certain amount of sectarian violence, likely at a higher level than in recent decades in Northern Ireland, persisting in Iraq for a long time to come. The chances of the U.S. establishing stability and handing off to a stable Iraqi government in any reasonable amount of time are ridiculously slim. In many ways U.S. troops are helping to foment and perpetuate violence, perhaps creating more insurgents than they are able to kill just by being a foreign occupying force. It might even be that the best chance for the Iraqis to get serious about governing themselves reasonably is to be staring a U.S. exit date in the face. Better to cut our losses sooner rather than later.

Must we?

Well, at least this wasn't one of those cases where all the neighbors of the murderer say he was quiet but otherwise unremarkable and nobody suspected a thing. This kid was obviously troubled and lots of people knew it.

I think it's mostly hindsight to try to find someone to blame for the fact that he wasn't restrained in some way before -- although I have to wonder how he became a senior if he never said anything in class. You wouldn't want to live in a society in which every troubled kid who acted strange was watched like a hawk and maybe put in preventive detention lest he be a mass murderer. There are a couple of things few have remarked on that seem worth mentioning.

Seung-Hui Cho was an (obviously) extreme example of a couple of strands in American culture that strike me as unhealthy in general, and decidedly so in far less extreme versions. He seemed to harbor an unhealthy resentment against the rich and "privileged" (he apparently named some rich kids he thought had especially dissed him, though it wouldn't be surprising if they were unaware of having done so), and he seemed to have been utterly incapable of taking personal responsibility for his own actions and attitudes. "You caused me to do this," the "disturbing" note found in his dorm room reportedly said. Somebody else was responsible for what he did.

The mainstream media and many of the attitudes imparted in public schools and many colleges reinforce much milder but still toxic versions of both these attitudes. You can hardly pick up a newspaper without reading a story about some new report showing that the rich are getting richer and it's oh, so lamentable. Many Americans have something of a split personality about the rich, consuming gossip about celebrities and heiresses avidly without apparent resentment, aspiring more to be rich than to bring down the rich, yet eternally susceptible to entertaining envy. Envy, about which Helmut Schoeck wrote an excellent book, is easily the most personally corrosive of the sins or vices, since it can never be satisfied. It desires only to bring down the object of envy, not to bring oneself up.

There are so many examples of voices in popular and political culture urging people to blame their problems on "society" or "the man" or "the system" or "the privileged" or the whites, blacks, browns or yellows, on immigration or globalization, the corporations, the greedy rich, and on and on that it is tedious just to mention a few. There are also voices suggesting that if you stop blaming others and work on yourself by taking responsibility for your choices, you are more likely than not to improve your lot in life. But the blame-others voices seem to have the upper hand.

I suppose it's inevitable that the videos the kid made will be splashed all over every kind of medium for days or weeks. It's supposed to be a free country so I wouldn't stop it even if I thought I could, but I can't help but regret it. You just know that some troubled or disturbed kids out there will latch onto him as a cult figure and have sick dreams about emulating or surpassing him. And having these words and images assaulting you can't be helpful for those who want to maintain a healthy and open attitude toward life and their fellow humans.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

North Koreans arm Ethiopians, US OK with it

Most Americans tend to think of foreign policy in a relatively idealistic manner, seeing our country as a unique force for good in the world. Internationalist conservatives and internationalist liberals -- not radicals who also see the U.S. as unique, but uniquely misguided or even a malign or evil force in the world -- have a remarkably similar vision. We went into Iraq to bring democracy and a sound economy, the beginning of a newly hopeful nation, says one side. Iraq might have been a mistake, says the other side, but we're abandoning our ideals by not intervening in Darfur and ending the latest would-be genocide, which partisans of this view have no doubt is within our power if we just remember our inherent goodness.

Both sides see America as a unique force, or potential force, for good. There are "realists" in the foreign policy establishment who advocate understanding and accommodating reality in the world, setting only modest and achievable goals. But while they may have been dominant in the Nixon or Bush I administration, they are something of a minority among those who think fairly seriously about foreign policy. Jimmy Carter wanted foreign policy to be about human rights. George W. Bush wants it to be about spreading democracy.

The Bush administration is particularly adamant about refusing to negotiate or have diplomatic relations with countries it defines as "evil" or "rogue," apparently believing that even talking with them would contaminate our essential goodness. But the administration can act realistically on occasion. The headline of this story tells it all: "North Koreans Arm Ethiopians as U.S. Assents."

Officially, of course, the U.S. is dismayed at the idea of North Korea proliferationg weapons and earning money to prop up its failed economy doing so. But Ethiopia earlier this year invaded Somalia and kicked out the Taliban-like Islamist regime that was taking root there. Ethiopia has bought arms (conventional) from North Korea for a long time. If they help Ethiopia serve what we perceive to be American interests in the Horn of Africa, we're quite willing to look the other way. Earlier, in 2002, the U.S. allowed a North Korean shipment of arms to Yemen, which was then helping the U.S. hunt down al-Qaida members, even after Spain intercepted it.

This is a quintessentially realistic -- or hypocritical, if you prefer -- stance. If today's good guys (Ethiopia) need to deal with today's bad guys (North Korea) to accomplish their aims, fine. It's not quite Winston Churchill saying he would ally with the devil to defeat Hitler, as he did in defending the wartime alliance with Stalin. But it's not that different either.

Sometimes even the world's most powerful nation must accept the way things simply are in the rest of the world. Not necessarily a bad thing. Reality is pretty powerful and likely to assert itself in the face of unrealistic idealism, however sincere. In fact, honoring reality just might be the most sensible policy of all. But politicians don't seem capable of aadmitting this. We have to be good and moral, or at least delude ourselves into thinking that we are.

Reason Weekend report

I can't say how much I enjoyed the Reason Weekend. Not only was it intellectually stimulating and informative, the hotel where it was held -- the Montage Resort in Laguna Beach -- is one of the nicest hotels I have ever stayed at. The setting, on a bluff overlooking the ocean, is spectacular enough, but almost everything about the hotel is tasteful and the staff is as attentive as any I have ever seen. And the food was terrific.

I especially enjoyed Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and author of "The Long Tail," which notes that with virtual outfits like, Netflix, and various music sites, serious inroads are being made into the "blockbuster" phenomenon whereby the most popular moves, albums, etc. are what you can get at brick-and-mortar stores. Now retailers willing to stock everything online are finding the niche markets can be profitable too. One music site has found that 40 percent of its sales are for titles that are not available in most stores or catalogs.

Adam Savage, co-host of Discovery Channel's "Mythbusters" program also spoke, telling a few anecdotes but focusing on the importance of failure and the willingness to try things that ultimately fail in scientific discovery and personal growth.

The panel in which I participated, on medical marijuana, also featured Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a patient advocacy group, and Joanne LaForce, one of the proprietors of the Farmacy in West Hollywood, which I have mentioned visitng in a previous blog. These two ladies are on the front lines, helping patients and developing knowledge about the therapeutic uses of cannabis -- about which more is known than most people have any idea of, but into which much more research is warranted, especially considering that the federal government has stymied almost all scientific research into cannabis in this country for decades.

Many thanks to Paul Feine, Don Heath, Jennifer Cohen, Jennifer Kambara, Melissa Palmer and other Reason staffers for making the weekend a success. It was especially good to see Bob Poole again -- since he moved to Florida I've missed seeing him more often -- and Ted Balaker, Manny Klausner, Lisa Snell, Adrian Moore (with whom I watched SpaceShip One make its successful flight), Sam Staley and others. It was also nice to get to know John Stagliano a little better, as well as Fred Young, Greg Stock, Lou Carabini and so many more.

David Nott, Reason's prsident, whom I have come to like very much over the last several years, was gracious as always. From what I can tell he's doing an excellent job.

Lost Boris Godunov

Princeton University has staged Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev and stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold's 1930s staging of Pushkin's "Boris Godunov," apparently for the first time. (They ran afoul of the Soviet bureaucracy and it was never staged in Russia.)

The story is that Prokofiev and Meyerhold disdained Modeste Moussorgsky's opera of the same name for being too lush and missing Pushkin's comic elements. I still love the Moussorgsky, having been introduced to it by an old vinyl album of excerpts featuring Alexander Kipnis. I know everyone says Feodor Chaliapin was the definitive Boris, and he was certainly formidable (though the recordings I've heard are kinda thin and scratchy which might not be a fair way to listen to him) but I think Kipnis was pretty spectacular.

Anyway, here's a decent review of the Prokofiev version. I'm fond of Prokofiev too and would love to have seen it. I understand there's a recording of just the music, which I'll try to find. I hope it catches on with other opera companies.

Disappointment in the war party

Here's a link to a recent piece I did for, on the outcome of the British-Iranian hostage crisis. What struck me was how disappointed certain people seemed to be that it ended peacefully and there was no opportunity to lob bombs or send in special forces. Naturally that led to people suggesting that the British Lion has become an appeasing pussycat for handling the situation in a reasonably sensible manner.


Very frustrating. I was just finishing a post on the Reason Weekend when I got an "Internet Explorer going down message, so I hit "save as draft." Jumped back onto the Web and tried the "edit" key so I could add a couple more links and check for typos, but it won't let me edit. Long story short, it was terrific, and if you're feeling flush you couldn't pick a better place for a vacation than the Montage Resort in Laguna Beach. Anyway, I'll check later to see if I can edit the full post and publish rather than rewriting the whole thing.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Reason Weekend

Sorry. My computer was out of commission Wednesday, and I've been busy preparing for the Reason Weekend in Laguna Beach. I'll be part of a panel on medical marijuana. I'm thinking I'll have access to a computer and some time to blog during the weekend but I'm not absolutely sure.

I'm looking forward to it. I've been to a couple of these weekends before and there are always lots of interesting people at Reason events, most of them extremely nice. It should be a nice opportunity ot reacqaint myself with some old friends and meet some new ones. Sound like a travel brochure? Ah, well.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Sorry, Ted

Jack Shafer just can't resist needling Ted Koppel, who predicted wrong about the original 1979 hostage crisis, then predicted the latest one wrong also. As much as Jack may be acute about Ted being a "pompous egomaniac," I miss him. He might have been self-important, but he usually dealt with fairly serious and pertinent issues. "Nightline" since he left has been barely watchable, dabbling way too often in pop culure and cutesiness, and the three stooges trying to top one another in inanity.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What really ruined baseball

With the baseball season opening, there's naturally talk of steroids. As J.C. Bradbury, an economist and author of "The Baseball Economist" notes in this recent NYT op-ed, "The news media has focused on steroids because of the way the game has changed over the last decade, particularly the frequency with which batters hit home runs." But Bradbury thinks "the reason may be more innocent," noting that "In the two years since baseball instituted mandatory steroid testing with suspensions, the rate at which players hit home runs has stayed roughly the same." And more than half of those who have tested positive for steroids are pitchers.

Bradbury thinks the reason for the explosion of home runs was the expansion of the league. MLB grew from 26 teams in 1990, to 30 by 1998. "The influx of inferior talent filling these new roster spots fundamentally altered the competitive environment: he writes. "It allowed elite players, especially hitters, to excel, though he notes that ace pitchers excelled too, as measured by strikeouts.

Bradbury makes a persuasive case. There seems to be little doubt that some players used steroids, and it may well be (all right, probably is) that they played a role in the McGwire-Sosa-Bonds phenomenon. But as is often the case, there's a tendency to want to place all the blame on demonized drugs (not that I'd think of taking steroids considering the risks, but I've never been a professional athlete). I'm still not convinced MLB and other sports leagues were correct to ban various drugs, and I certainly don't think it's justified for the government to control them so tightly. Adults ought to be able to decide for themselves what risks they want to take.

According to this Slate piece, the latest villain, human growth hormone, which Gary Matthews allegedly ordered by mail a few years ago, doesn't even help athletic performance, though it does make you look more "cut."

Josh Wolf released

Here's a link to the Register editorial on the release of Josh Wolf, a "citizen-activist-journalist" who had taken video of a demonstration in San Francisco against globalization during which a police car was trashed and a policeman bashed on the head hard enough to sustain a skull fracture. A grand jury wanted his unedited tape and he refused. In the end they made a deal they could have made at the outset. The tape had nothing incriminating.

The most important point here is that the First Amendment was not created to protect a privileged class of certified "journalists," but to protect all AMericans who want to express their opinions. That should have meant radio and TV -- simply "the press" with new technology -- and applies to various unruly pamphleteers, bloggers, etc.

War on Americans?

I think I'm seeing more people pick up on the phenomenon of often irrational fear the adminstration is engendering -- purposely in many cases but without much sense of the long-term consequences for the country -- among ordinary Americans in the wake of 9/11. Of course it's a fertile field; Americans seem to get some kind of thrill from professing great fear about this or that pipsqueak dictator.

Here's a piece by Zbigniew Brezinski, contending that "The 'war on terror' has created a culture of fear in America. The Bush administration's elevation of these three words into a national mantra since the horrific events of 9/11 has had a pernicious impact on American democracy, on AMerica's psyche and on U.S> standing in the world. Using this phrase has actually undermined our ability to effectively confront the real challenges we face from fanatics who may use terrorism against us."

Brezinski notes that use of the term has caused administration types to compare al-Qaida to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, a real stretch, and urged fear about sometimes-inconsequential (think the hapless Miami "plotters") situations. Thus "America has become insecure and more paranoid." We put up with absurd and probably ineffectual security at airports and in office buildings, drifting into a siege mentality. We yawn while our leaders hold people prisoner without charges for years at a time, a sign of an arbitrary government that resists the rule of law, something we denounced with regularity when the communists did it. And so on.

Brezinski calls for some leader to say "enough." If we have to depend on a leader we truly have become a nation of sheeple. Brezinski doesn't write that the Bush administration is not unique, that it has followed and extended precedent from both parties (see my earlier Gabriel Kolko post). Is it too much to hope that gradually but firmly the American people will get fed up and tell their "leaders" to stop inducing paranoia. Perhaps.

So who blinked?

When the Register's editorial on the release of the 15 British sailors and marines ran with a headline referring to Iran "blinking," we got some letters berating us for not realizing that Iran had just humiliated Great Britain, the United States, the West in general and the entire concept of civilization. To me, it's part of the demonization with which many Americans approach foreign policy. We're not content to understand that other countries have different interests and may sometimes be our adversaries, they have to be part of an "axis of evil," etc. And a monolithically evil country couldn't be sometimes uncertain or have internal divisions, it must be relentless and always calculating in its pursuit of evil, and any response that doesn't involve bombs or special forces is by definition a humiliation.

However, Francis Fukuyama, not always right but not a slouch, writing about who was humilated, thinks "that something more like the opposite is actually the case."

After explaining the importance of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which seems to be the outfit that did the capture, in Persian politics, he goes on: "Clearly, whoever was responsible for the decision to take the British Marines prisoner was hoping to rekindle some of the fervor of the 1979 revolution, and use that to force the rest of the leadership into a confrontation with Britain and America. Hence the televised 'confessions' that hearkened back to the taking of hostages in the American Embassy (the 'nest of spies'), and the rallies against foreign embassies. But the gambit didn't work, and there was clearly a behind-the-scenes power struggle between different parts of the regime. Ahmadinejad was supposed to give a major speech to a huge rally in Tehran, and when he did speak, it was to announce that the captives would soon be released. The IRGC prisoners were released, but Britain did not apologize or admit wrong-doing in return. So it would appear that it was the Iranians who blinked first, before the incident could spiral into a genuine 1979-style hostage crisis."

This doesn't necessarily mean that the "moderates" in Iran don't want a nuclear weapon, as the Shah did back in the 1970s, when the Iranian nucolear program started. However, as Fukuyama puts it, "there are important splits within the leadership and there is an important faction that does not want Iran to be isolated."

Give Ahmadinejad some grudging credit. Although it appears that his faction lost, he played the release to the hilt, as if it were all his idea to show how generous and civilized the Islamic Republic really is. Sure.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Prop. 36 is working

Here's a link to a Register editorial on Prop. 36, the voter-passed measure that replaces incarceration with treatment for drug users convicted of simple possession. It was sparked by an L.A. Times story that expressed dismay that some people were "gaming" the system by not finishing treatment or not taking it seriously. We pointed out that the success rate for Prop. 36 beneficiaries is comparable to the success rate for those who go into treatment voluntarily (or with a push from friends and family), and those coerced into treatment by a court.

The best approach to drug problems, of course, is to decriminalize all "illicit" drugs so individuals can handle medical/personal problems their own way -- and take reponsibility for the outcome of their actions. But making a pernicious system a little less worse is still a worthy undertaking -- and Prop. 36 is helping a few people to deal with their problems, and others to see the drug war differently.

Some perspective from Kolko

Here's an interesting piece from the historian Gabriel Kolko on the background to Iraq and other current crises. Money quote:

"George W. Bush and his cronies have done incalculable damage and committed terrible follies, but it is a fundamental error to assume that he is somehow original and the genesis of our present crisis." Kolko argues that "George W. Bush inherited conventional wisdom regarding the world mission and universal interests that guide American policies on the world scene. The same ambitions have been shared by leaders of other powers who believe that wars serve as effective, controllable instruments of national goals." Bush merely intensified attitudes toward the Middle East that have been prevalent among U.S. policy types since the end of World War II. And in some ways the region's trouble go back to the unjust and unnatural order imposed on the area by the Western powers after World War I.

The upshot? It will take more than Bush leaving office to restore something like sanity and modesty in U.S. foreign policy. There's a much longer history to reconsider and for many people to recant. But I still think that while they can be worked up to believe official demonization of other regimes, most Americans still don't want their government running an empire.

Deploring Britain

I'm fascinated at how testy and downright cranky some conservatives are at the relatively peaceful resolution of the British-Iranian hostage crisis. Writing about it, Jonah Goldberg, over at NRO, laments that "looking to the British government itself, pride seems to be sorely lacking. The most outrage I could find from a government official canme from Patricia Hewett, the British health secretary, who called the spectacle 'deplorable.' Alas, she was referring to something else. She was infuriated 'that the woman hostage should be shown smoking.'"

Cute, as Jonah often is

Charles Krauthammer is upset that those who claim to be keepers of the international order -- he's particularly peeved at the EU -- didn't do much.

What these eminentoes seem to be lamenting most is that the United Kingdom is no longer imperial Great Britain in the glory days. The implication is that Britain is decadent and wobbly these days. An interesting thing for an American to be nostalgic about.

These Americans can't seem to latch hold of the idea that having your chest burst with pride because somebody wearing the uniform of your country killed a few wogs is a kind of pride that has diminishing returns. After all those years of being keepers of the world, most Brits probably feel it's better to leave those unfortunate lesser breeds alone rather than killing them or trying to bring them up to civilized snuff.

Maybe that's not a bad idea.

Libertarians and LIbertine Conservatives

I've never met Anthony Gregory, apparently a recent Berkeley grad and a musician, but I've admired his writing, mostly at, for some time now. This piece addresses a contention or wisecrack I've heard many times -- "that libertarians," as Gregory puts it, "are nothing more than Republicans who want to party and smoke pot." He notes, however, that "AtUC Berkeley, I saw plenty of young conservatives on campus, and believe me, most of them struggled through the day to cut loose at night at least as much as the nearest bohemian sporting Che on his t-shirt."

Rather than calling such people "libertarians," Gregory prefers "libertine conservatives," who, he contends, "do not believe in personal freedom, except perhaps their own." Indeed, they may be more outwardly puritanical than conservatives who don't party.

The key for Gregory is whether one supports the American empire. And a few other things:

"If you are concerned about the economic fascism of the current American system, the military-industrial complex, the perpetual war and ubiquitous American empire, the secret spying, the torture, the fraud of central banking, the massive theft known as taxation, the war on drugs as a threat to everyone's liberty, the welfare state's destruction of our economy and social fabric -- if you consider public schools institutions of wickedness and tyranny and believe freedom is the only answer to any of these problems -- if you think every individual has the right not to be aggressed against, not to be forced to pay for war and not to be killed by U.S. bombs -- if you believe that private property, freedom of association, peace, free trade and individual liberty are the recipe for a just world -- then by all means call yourself a libertarian. I couldn't care less what you do after work or who you want to sleep with."

Oh. Okay.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Congress clumsy, but the process may be working

Here's a link to the piece I did last week for It discusses the sometimes faltering and to many unsatisfactory way Congress has approached the Iraq war. I'm less upset than many. Having worked there (though a long time ago) I think I know a bit about how Congress works (or perhaps more often doesn't). It's helpful to remember that despite the partisan sniping, they are all in the same club, the legislative section of the ruling class. There are genuine dislikes, but for the most part they would rather stay friendly with Honorables from the other party, since even in a polarized times they have common interests in continuing pork and trading support on other favored legislation. So they operate in ways that would seem peculiar in most business and even other kinds of organizations.

The leadership has gone slow for a number of reasons, including not wanting to be criticized justly for leaving the troops high and dry, and because the Democrats are far from unanimous (and less so a few weeks ago) on what they want to do. But even toothless resolutions help to define the permissible parameters of public discussion, and I think I see that happening. As they are stonewalled by Dubya, they seem to get more determined to make it clear that they are not going to be buffaloed by Bush.

It will be fascinating to see how it all plays out.

Building the Great Pyramid

Before any more politics or commentary on the world today, a little excursion into history. A fascinating piece on the site of Archeology, by Bob Brier, (thanks to for finding it) describes a persuasive new theory as to how the pyramids were built.

The article says there have been two theories, one involving cranes and the other involving ramps, but modern scholars, "deep in their hearts they know neither one is correct." See, the Egyptians probably didn't have the timber to build such huge cranes, and not enough room to build a long-enough ramp.

The new theory, from Jean-Pierre Houdin, a French architect who has spent years making detailed computer models of the Great Pyramid, involves an internal ramp, along the inside walls, to drag the blocks of stone up as they got toward the top. There are illustrations on the Web site that help to explain and persuade.

Singing well is its own reward

I don't do much besides watch athletic competitions these days -- though I keep threatening to start playing tennis with my 34-year old son, and that would get competitive I suspect -- but one thing I do has a resemblance. Performing well in a musical concert requires (at least for me) some of the same disciplines: focus and concentration, the kind of relaxation that feeds intensity, paying attention to what your body is telling you (at least if you're singing), and using what you learned in practice in a way that feels more instinctive than obviously learned. When you do well, whether you win or lose, you have a sense of accomplishment at having given pretty close to the best you had at that particular moment.

The Temecula Vintage Singers concert was this afternoon, and it went really well. David and I had to falsetto on some of the highest tenor notes, but not on all, and we hit pretty much all of them. Everybody else seemed to be in good voice too, and with the possible exception of the first number, we blended pretty well.

Moira Stern sang a couple of tough Bach arias and handled them quite well. The Messiah excerpts were lively and pretty crisp. I think I sang the "Hallelujah" chorus as well as I have in performance. The Vivaldi "Gloria" in the second half was the highlight, I thought. The cello added a lot. I think we remembered almost everything about expression and hitting the notes accurately was just about automatic. Lorian, Darcy and Sarai handled their solo/duet pieces nicely.

I was so pleased that Mark Landsbaum, my colleague from the Register editorial page, and his wife Jan Norman, the Register's small-business columnist, came all the way out to Temecula to hear the concert. They seemd to enjoy it, and Jen had a chance to meet them (Jan has been very helpful to her on several occasions when she's had entrepreneurial questions).

Anyway, feeling good.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Alan Bock's Blog: Britons freed

Alan Bock's Blog: Britons freed

Iran blinks

Plenty of people are spinning the release of the Brits by Iran as a loss for Britain and a huge win for Iran. Here's the Register's editorial on the subject, which I think is more balanced than most.

Casting Britain as a failure and a shadow of its former self underestimates both Britain and the complexity of Iran. Those who think Ahmadinejad's most extreme statements represent unanimity in Iran simply aren't aware that there are other forces at work within Iran. I still think the militant factions lost the internal battle, overruled by more level heads who actually don't want to see Iran become more of an international pariah than it already is. To assume no such influences exist within Iran is essentially to demonize the country, which all too often is the sum total of foreign policy under the neocons and Bushies.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Libertarians in America

Here's a link to John Fund's review of Brian Doherty's new book, "Radicals for Capitalism," a history of the modern libertarian movement. The book focuses on five key influences: Ludwing von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard and Milton Friedman. Those are pretty good choices. I haven't read it yet -- Matt snagged the copy that was sent to me at the Register, but I'll get it back. Brian spent a few days at the Register while researching it, and by thumbing through it and checkiong the index, I see it has a fiarly extensive section on R.C. Hoiles and Freedom Newspapers (now Communications). That's gratifying, as I think R.C. is too little known or appreciated.

Come hear me (and others) sing Saturday

I guess I've been singing with the Temecula Vintage Singers, a mostly-but-not-exclusively-classical group, for almost 10 years now. Wherever I have lived I have found a group to sing with or sometimes, if I could find a school willing to let me borrow their bassoon (I could never afford to buy one), a band or orchestra to play with.

Anyway, The Vintage Singers are giving a concert this Saturday at 2:00 p.m. at the Temecula Community Theater on Main Street in Old Town. It's a fairly new and quite nice facility (maybe two-three years old now) with reasonable acoustics (though multipurpose halls are seldom ideal for music).

This being Easter Saturday, we're doing Handel (Messiah excerpts) Bach and Vivaldi (the "Gloria," with harpsichord and cello, more interesting than the usual piano). We had our dress rehearsal Monday and we're ready.

You might also be interested in checking out the Temecula Wine Country. There are more than a dozen wineries, a couple quite spectacular and all nice, several very nice restaurants, and the wine is decent quality (i.e., fifteen bucks a bottle and up but tasting is reasonable and fun).

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Britons freed

There must be weeping and gnashing of teeth -- done discreetly behind closed doors, of course -- in certain circles in Washington today. The Iranians announced they would, and then did release the 15 British sailors and marines they captured March 23, and it all happened without so much as a bomb being dropped or a saber rattled. To top it off, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who can be pretty flaky sometimes (to put it mildly), played it to the hilt, scoring a propaganda coup. He called it a "gift" to the British people, given out of the generosity and humanity of the Iranian people. mentioning both Easter and Muhammad's birthday. Thus he preserved his contention that Iran had really been offended, having its territorial waters violated, but chose to be the civilized party in the affair. Good acting.

Oh, how badly some of the neocons wanted to show some military muscle, though a few of them probably do understand that the U.S. military is overstretched thanks to the misadventure in Iraq. It must be acknowledged, however, that the U.S. Navy and Air Force have not been decimated by the Iraq war, and if the U.S. were to do anything against Iran it would at least start with naval and air attacks.

Expect recriminations from some quarters in the U.S., quietly but firmly viewing the Brits as having been kind of wussy in this matter. No matter. It worked. From the people I talked to today, it looks as if the Brits played it just about right. They never acknowledged violating Iranian waters, declared themselves the aggrieved party and publicly refused to negotiate with hostage-takers -- although I'd be amazed if there weren't some back channels used. Sky News said its sources claim Qatar and Syria were involved in bringing the incident to a resolution. Would like to track that down.

I don't know whether the original capture happened because of some overzealous local commander or was ordered from the center. It probably wasn't coincidental that the Brits were taken a day after it was announced that the UN Security Council was likely to impose new sanctions over the nuclear issue.

I suspect that the Ahmadinejad faction wanted to put the Brits on trial but cooler heads among the mullahs prevailed and Ahmadinejad did what he was told -- though we may know quite a bit more in the coming days.

If the Bush administration were wise, it would step back, take a deep breath, and open more direct talks with Iran. I don't think the U.S. is likely to leave the Persian Gulf anytime soon -- though I can make a solid case that this wouldn't be a bad course. We don't need a military presence there to get the oil. Those countries basically have nothing if they don't sell oil, and at some level they know it.

However, assuming the U.S. keeps a presence in the region, it will have to acknowledge that Iran (even if there's regime change) will be a key regional power whose interests will sometimes coincide with and cometimes conflict with U.S. interests, but in any event wuill have to be taken into account. Right now, both have an interest -- spurred on by the Saudis in the case of Iran -- in making sure Iraq doesn't get even more chaotic. (Iran probably viewed it as being in their interest to stir the pot in Iraq for a while, but long-term chaos would disrupt their goal of having essentially a friendly and reasonably stable Shia government in power there.)

Warming caused by sun?

You may remember news last year that photos of Mars suggested that some possible ice had melted on Mars and created a small flow in what one might call a riverbed. It was fascinating to scientists as evidence that there was water still on Mars, if probably not much of it, which makes the notion of looking for life forms more interesting.

A Russian scientist, however, has drawn some interesting conclusions from that phenomenon and the fact that the carbon dioxide "ice caps" have been diminishing for three summers in a row. As the National Geographic News Service (!) wrote: "Habibullo Adussamotov, head of St. Petersburg's Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory in Russia, says the Mars data is evidence that the current global warming on Earth is being caused by changes in the sun."

"The long-term increases in solar irradiance is heating both Earth and Mars," he said. He thinks it is possible that man-made greenhouse gases have made a small contribution to the current warming, but a pittance compared to the importance of changes in the sun, which he has been tracking through history. He thinks he sees a relationship between sun activity and climate change in the past.

His theory is controversial, of course. Many scientists reject it. But it's worth pondering.

Insight into the surge

This story from last Friday unfortunately offers some insight into how the "surge" is going in Baghdad. Suaada Saadoun, a Sunni Muslim living in a predominantly Shia neighborhood, decided to call in reinforcements when a couple of Shia thugs showed up at her house Tuesday claiming the had an eviction notice from the government. She called American and Kurdish soldiers with whom she had established a relationship after other threats, who were on a base about a mile away. They showed up in some force. They took the two men into custody (it turned out the eviction papers were for a different neighborhood). The neighbors cheered.

A sign the surge is working? It would seem so. But the next morning Suaada Saadoun was shot dead.

For the first month after U.S. and Iraqi soldiers moved into this Shia neighborhood, which had been dominated by Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, things were reasonably quiet as the Shia militia people moved out or laid low. But a few weeks ago the eight Sunni families in the neighborhood started to receive threats. A few moved out. A few more moved out after Suaada Saadoun's shooting. The Shia are driving Sunni families out of Baghdad house by house, regardless of the presence of U.S. troops. The U.N. estimates that at least 727,000 people have been displaced within Iraq since the bombing of the Shia Golden Mosque last February. Some two million Iraqis have fled the country. For the most part those who have been able to leave have been people of some means and accomplishment who could afford to get out -- the kind of middle-class people that form the backbone of a successful society.

The Bush administration, having invaded the country and continued on to occupation with no serious planning, bears a serious moral responsibility for the chaos the invasion has precipitated in Iraq. But the chances of fixing it are virtually nil. It's time for U.S. troops to leave Iraq to the Iraqis, as likely as fiercer conflict, at least for a while, may be.

Loyal to whom or what?

You have probably heard of Monica Goodling by now, although until a few weeks ago almost nobody outside the Justice Department had heard of her. She's the on-leave Justice Department top lawyer who has announced she would take the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of the right not to testify if you believe truthful testimony might incriminate you. Considering Scooter Libby's conviction for perjury about an alleged crime for which nobody was charged, it might not be an indefensible move on her part. But it doesn't look good anyway.

But that's not the interesting part. This story says that the's "part of a generation of young religious conservatives who swept into the federal government after the election of President Bush in 2000 ..."She went to Messiah College in Pennsylvania, a Christian school that does not have coed dorms or allow alcohol. She started law school at American University but transferred to Regent, founded by Pat Robertson. Upon graduation in 1999 she went to work for the Republican National Committee, then to the Justice Department's press office, then up the ladder at Justice.

A smart religious conservative succeeding at politics? Yes, but how did she prove herself, and how does that mesh with being a Christian? The WP says she "displayed unblinking devotion to the administration and expected others to do the same." That included, for example, firing an intern on the spot who walked off in a huff after she told him he'd have to prove himself before he could take on other than menial tasks. She was knee-deep in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. In short, she was something of an enforcer.

I can't say that I know much about her walk, and I'll assume she's sincere. But what kind of Christianity is it that displays itself through unblinking devotion to a political figure, a political party and an administration that starts wars of choice? What I learned in Sunday School and a lifetime of attending church and considering myself a Christian was that our first loyalty is to God and then to our families and friends, with the understanding that God is Lord of all and we are to treat others as His children. The idea of displacing that loyalty by total devotion to a mere man or to transient political policies smacks of idoloatry, or at least of misplaced priorities. Being a Christian should mean, I think, being able to view such transient and worldly matters as politics and leaders with a certain detachment; we can certainly have favorites, but we should remember that they are imperfect mortals, that they may be wrong, and that our real home is not in this world at all.

Blogger Andrew Sullivan has coined the term "Christianist" to describe people who express their religion through politics rather than more spiritual methods, just as we commonly call people who express their Islamic beliefs through political actions and terrorism "Islamists" in part to distinguish them from the majority of Muslims. I fear that Christianity may take a long time recovering from Christianism in this country.