Saturday, June 30, 2007

Bong hits 4 Jesus

One more Register editorial for the night. The Supreme Court made a terrible decision in the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case, about a student who unfurled a banner with that slogan across the street from his high school in Alaska and was disciplined for it by the principal. To me it's another example of the "drug war exception" to the Bill of Rights. Where there's even a hint of a connection to the Holy War on Drugs the courts will bend over backward to give authorities power the constitution never ever intended them to have.

Immigration sentiments

Here's a link to the Register's editorial that ran the day the Senate put the kibosh on the "comprehensive" immigration reform bill. The editorial gave it a lukewarm endorsement, but I can't say that I'm terribly unhappy that it didn't pass. I'd prefer a simpler approach -- getting rid of government-set quotas and have immigrants sign a promise not to appy for any government benefit until they's been in the country long enough to have contributed to the pot -- five years, ten years, 15, 20, whatever.

The Supremes' school racial balance decisions

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the Supremes' decision on the two school racial-balancing decisons, regarding the school districts in Louisville and Seattle. The court said that they used race too much. Chief Justice Roberts' opinion was bold in some of its rhetoric -- "the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimianting on the basis of race" or something like that. But Justice Anthony Kennedy provided the crucial fifth vote, and while he agreed on the outcome of these two cases, he specifically rejected that sentiment, saying there might be situations where it would be constitutional to take race into account (and even I can imagine a prison riot situation where if the wardens didn't take race or ethnicity into account they could get a lot of people killed).

It's harder to imagine a justifiable situation in school assignments. I would have preferred if the court had just reversed Grutter or said Grutter might apply to college or grad school but not to K-12, but the votes probably weren't there.

Welfare for politicians

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on FENA, a proposal for public (i.e., taxpayer) financing of congressional and senatorial elections. Naturally, we argue that it's a terrible idea, for any number of reasons. I don't give money to politicians, by choice, because I think that as a class they are parasitic, part of the problem (which is not to say there aren't a few -- very few -- who are reasonably honorable given what they do for a living). As Buckminster Fuller once said, "The end move in politics is always to pick up a gun."

To use my tax money to support politicians, then, is to steal from me and give to people I don't approve. Not that government doesn't do that constantly anyway, but why expand dishonorable activities?

One argument for taxpayer financing is that it will get the nasty private special-interest money out of politics. Good luck. Trying to do it this way puts the cart before the horse. So long as government is big enough and powerful enough to decide whether certain businesses or even certain industries survive and thrive or wither and die, people in those industries will find ways to influence political decisions, and money is just one of the more efficient ways. If we really wanted special-interest money out of politics, we would have to reduce the size and scope of government so much that it wouldn't be worth anybody's while to buy influence because there would be so little there. How soon do you think that's gonna happen?

Friday, June 29, 2007

Iraq violence still high

President Bush had to have been using old figures when he claimed yesterday that violence was declining in Iraq in a speech yesterday (after which he conceded defeat on the immigration bill). Here's a link to a WaPo story about the Pentagon's quarterly report I referenced in an earlier blog. Sectarian killings did drop from February to April, but civilian casualties rose somewhat over the previous quarter. And in May sectarian killings started to increase again. Violence fell somewhat in Baghdad and Anbar, but increased in the rest of the country.

I'm not saying the "surge" has no chance of working by September, but those who believe it has worked so far are snatching at pipedreams. The defeat of the immigration bill should make it official. Bush is the lamest of ducks and has virtually no chance for success on the kind of domestic agenda item that could help to create a positive legacy. It's all Iraq now, and it's not going well there.

Bombing in London

Here's a link to the Web-only editorial the Register did on the thwarted car bombing in London. I was able to talk with Brian M. Jenkins, the noted terrorism analyst at the Rand Corp., and he helped me sort out speculation from what was known at the time, about midday Pacific time.

Things have changed since then as more has been learned. It now seems fairly certain there were two cars rigged to explode, and the plot could be more elaborate. It still looks to me more like the work of relative amateurs more inspired by al-Qaida than directed, but I'm willing to be guided by the facts as they emerge.

Several things seem important. There was virtually no warning, and while it seems quite possible that the device would not have gone off -- it's different building something from an illustration than having actual experience doing it --it may well have been a combination of luck and alertness that prevented a devastating explosion. So it wasn't surveillance and profiling that worked this time, but ordinary police work.

This incident also demonstrates yet again that what the West faces is not a centrally-directed conspiracy emanating from a nation-state but a diffuse web of cells, some freelancing, that is loosely controlled if at all. It should seem obvious (but is it?) that military attacks won't stop them. It should also seem obvious that these attacks will continue as long as the U.S., U.K. and other countries occupy Muslim countries. That occupation is the most effective recruiting tool for the jihadists. Not that all such actions would stop if we pulled out -- indeed, there might be a flurry of them in the months following. But staying virtually ensures they will become a feature of life for years to come.

Ron Paul going to Iowa anyway

Despite (or because of) not being invited to the candidates' forum in Iowa on Saturday, Ron Paul will be going anyway. Here's a link to the announcement on his Web site. The idea is to have a rally right after the forum to demonstrate the breadth of support Mr. Paul has. Here's a link to more details. It will be at the Hy Vee Hall, 730 Third St. in Des Moines. It would be kinda nice if his supporters outnumbered the supporters of all the other candidates, but we'll see.

Quote of the Day

"In the eyes of empire builders men are not men but instruments." -- Napoleon Bonaparte

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Getting together with North Korea

Here's a story that explains some of the contortions U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill had to go through to meet with North Koreans and continue negotiating what has finally become an agreement for the North Koreans to shut down their nuclear reactor in exchange for aid. In January, for example, he got former diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who now heads the American Academy in Berlin, to invite him to give a speech -- and hardly by coicidence lead North Korean negotiator Kim Gye Gwan was there too. Then a couple of weeks ago he went to Mongolia for the annual meeting of the Asia Society, also chaired by Holbrooke -- and while he was there a flap over North Korean money deposited in a Macau bank broke, clearing the way for the agreement to be implemented.

There are plenty of people who will call this appeasement. but it strikes me as fairly wise. Even though there's doubt about whether the Koreans really did explode a nuclear weapon underground last year, it's clearly better to have them agree not to keep going for nukes and to have the IAEA in there, which is starting this week, than to have them continuing to try to build a nuke or more. South Korea wants to normalize relations with the North, and it's time for the U.S. to let that happen -- and get U.S. troops, which serve more as a tripwire than a deterrent, out of South Korea.

Impeach Cheney?

As long as we've been discussing VP Dick Cheney this week, here's an article that makes a case for impeaching him, written by Bruce Fein, a conservative attorney who served in the Justice Department in the Reagan era. Fein has been upset with the Bush administration's grab for overweening executive power for a long time -- he opposed the Patriot Act, for example. Now he traces much of the abuse of power to Cheney, to whom, he argues, Bush has "outsourced" much of the presidency. For his dominant role in authorizing unwarranted wiretaps and other surveillance on Americans, bending U.S. policy toward approving of torture and detaining people (including U.S. citizens) indefinitely without filing charges, urging signing statements announcing the president will enforce laws selectively and ignore parts he doesn't like, and his hostility to civil liberties and freeedom of the press, he thinks Cheney is eminently impeachable.

Of course the words "high crimes and misdemeanors" in the impeachment clause of the Constitution are a term of political art meaning, in effect, "we've had enough of your stuff, buster; it's time for you to go." I think we should have impeached a president (whether we convicted him or not) every 20 years or so just to keep them all a little nervous. Maybe we're moving in that direction. Impeaching a vice president wouldn't be a bad idea, and this one certainly deserves it. Whether there's the political will to do so when the country faces so many other problems and is already distracted by the upcoming election is another question.

Bloomberg musings

I hope this is the last time I'll feel inclined to discuss the possible independent candidacy of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He's obviously interested, and he apparently has enough money to drop half a billion on a campaign without feeling anything remotely resembling financial pain. However, I have a hard time understanding what appeal he would have. He's popular in NYC, but it's hard to point to any solid achievements there beyond not messing with what Giuliani did -- although Fred Siegel will grudgingly concede that his "contribution to the good times has been limited but consequential."

From a national perspective, it's hard to see what he would contribute to the discussion. With his smoking ban and trans-fat ban he is more Nanny State-oriented than most, but how different he is from a standard-issue moderately liberal Democrat is difficult to discern. Independent candidacies are tough in the U.S., and independents tend to make an impression mainly when they have some important idea the two parties are obviously failing to address, such as the deficit when Ross Perot ran. Neither party is addressing entitlements, which is a huge long-term concern, but is there any evidence Bloomberg is interested? He would have to run on competence and getting beyond partisan bickering in Washington, but he might well have no natural allies in Congress if elected, so that could be a tough sell.

John Judis makes a case that he's more analogous to John Anderson in 1980. He contends that Anderson "provided the margin of victory for Reagan in eleven states," including some that Democrats now routinely win. Therefore, he argues that a Bloomberg candidacy would be more dangerous to the Democrats than to the Republicans.

Quote of the Day

"Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war." -- John Adams

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Giuliani and the Iraq Study Group

Here's an interesting piece by's excellent national security writer Fred Kaplan on Rudy Guiliani and the Iraq Study Group. Turns out Rudy was an original member of the group chaired by Bush family consigliere James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, that came up with various mostly sensible recommendations last December for the Bush administration to ignore. But he was forced out after failing to show up for any meetings.

Giuliani has explained he was already thinking about running for president and his presence might have lent a political spin. As Kaplan writes, however, "The more likely reason for Giuliani's no-shows is much plainer -- money. Craig Gordon, the Newsday reporter who wrote the story in the Long Island newspaper's June 19 edition, discovered that on the three days of meetings Giuliani missed (before quitting) he was out of town, delivering highly lucrative speeches." One for $200,000, another for $100,000. A total of $1.7 million during the month the ISG was meeting.

There's nothing wrong with making money, but Rudy also passed up a chance to become more thoroughly educated about the most important foreign policy issue of the time, about which he occasionally still demonstrates his ignorance. In fact, for a man running largely on the promise that he'll be a tough leader in the war on terror, Rudy has pretty much zero foreign polilcy experience. He was mayor at the time of the 9/11 attacks and showed some leadership qualities. But do we really want another president who knows how to talk tough but has no foreign policy experience and has displayed little curiosity about such matters during almost all of his time on this planet?

Cheney finale

Here's a link to the final story in the WaPo series on Cheney's backstage and backdoor use of power. This one concentrates on finding ways to weaken environmental regulation. It turns out that Cheney was instrumental in getting the water from several dams to flow in the Klamath area along the California-Oregon border in 2001. I remember the events, and in this case I have to sympathize with Cheney. I think the farmers should have gotten the water too, even though an argument could be and was made that the Endangered Species Act mandated that it be used for fish populations. But much as I might agree with Cheney's goals in this case, his methods were characteristically sneaky.

The entire incident shows the complications that ensue when resources are treated as public property. If "everybody" owns something then nobody really owns it, but in practice the government controls it and decisions about its use or allocation are made through political process rather than through voluntary marketplace mechanisms. This often leads to contention and resentment and nearly always leads to inefficient allocation. Better for most resources to be privately owned with clearly delineated property lines and rights.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Ron Paul's campaign HQ moving

Ron Paul's campaign has outgrown the 348-square foot office in which it's been located, and Kent Snyder has located the second story of a storefront in Arlington, VA. This post has more details -- and a plea for funds, of course.

The Mideast unravels

Here's a link to the piece I did last week for, which contends that the Hamas takeover in Gaza highlights the almost complete unraveling of the American enterprise in the Middle East. The vaunted road map to Israeli-Palestinian peace was a pipedream from the beginning, Iraq is about as far from being a functioning democracy with a vibrant civil society as can be imagined, and the war in Iraq has made Iran considerably stronger -- despite the fact that Ahmadinejad's economic policies have been disastrous, further weakening an economy that with even half-decent governance should be strong. Israel is more thoroughly surrounded by hostile regimes than ever. Interventionism really works well, doesn't it?

The Cheney way

I've been reading the Washington Post series on how Dick Cheney operates, and it's a remarkably reported piece of work on remarkable piece of work. One almost hates to admit that there are smart people in Washington, devoted as most of them are to the dark art of wielding political power and inimical as most of their agendas are to the best interests of the American people. But from my experience there -- long ago as it was -- and from talking to people in Washington almost every day, yes, there are plenty of smart people there.

I wouldn't be surprised, however, if Dick Cheney is virtually unsurpassed as a power operative. He obviously knows the byways of Washington better than most, and he has been shrewd, secretive and sometimes ruthless in the way he has pursued the goal of expanding presidential power -- ostensibly to fight the terrorist threat, but there's little doubt that the expansion of presidential power has been a goal of his since Watergate.

Anyway, here's a link to yesterday's piece, which discusses the expansion of presidential power in national security matters, especially retaining or grabbing the -- I can't put it any other way -- bogus authority to torture people.

And to today's piece, which demonstrates that for all the focus on war powers and natinal security, Cheney has remarkable influence on domestic matters as well -- not just energy, which precipitated a confrontation early on, but tax policy, the management of water in the West, and much more.

And here's a link to Post columnist Eugene Robinson's musings on the series thus far and what it says about the desire for power and the lack of accountability with which Cheney has been able to wield it.

Boat barrier links.

Here's a link to the original Washington Post story on the wasted millions for the boat barriers designed to prevent another USS Cole incident. And here's a link to the story about GSA and NCIS testimony in Congress a couple of weeks later. To IE, thanks for working tonight.

Vagrant thought . . .

. . . and probably not all that original. Were there more reporters covering the liberation of Paris Hilton this morning than covered the liberation of Paris from Hitlerism and Naziism in 1944?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Context for offensive

I probably won't be able to link for backup, but while it's probably still too early to assess the mostly conventional-military offensive begun last week that I discussed a couple of times last week, here's part of the context within which it was undertaken. The Pentagon issued its quarterly report on Iraq earlier this month -- analyzing date from February through early May, and it reported that "The aggregate level of violence in Iraq remained relatively unchanged suring this reporting period." Violence did decrease in many of the neighborhoods in Baghdad where the "surge" strategy of becoming a semi-permanent presence in neighborhoods was tried, especially during the first month or so. But it has begun increasing gradually.

Meanwhile, violence "increased in most provinces, particularly in outlying areas around Baghdad and in Neniva and Diyala provinces." Overall attacks on U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians increased by 2 percent from the previous quarter, and at more than 1,000 per week (!) is the highest level since the U.S. invasion.

Meanwhile the Iraqi government has not met any of the "benchmarks" U.S. officials are said to consider essential for settling the political situation down a little, such as an agreement on apportioning oil revenues, amending the constitution, or setting a schedule for provincial elections.

All this bad news makes the military offensive look somewhat like a desperate move to overcome what appears to be the disappointing results -- I'm not quite ready to say "failure" yet, but it does rather look that way -- of the "surge."

Quote of the Day

"A belligerent state permits itself every such misdeed, every such act of violence, as would disgrace the individual." -- Sigmund Freud
Apparently no links tonight.

Floating waste and fraud

Damn! Internet Explorer keeps shutting down when I try to put the links into this story. I'll see if it will let me publish now and do the links later if I can.

Here's a story that illustrates how the government works all too often, even when all concerned consider the project important and an important national security priority. Remember in October 200, when a small skiff pulled alongside the USS Cole, loaded with explosives, and blew a 40-foot hole in the Navy destroyer, killing 17 sailors? The Pentagon decided to come up with something that would minimize the possibility of any such attacks in the future.

This led to the idea of rubberized floatting barriers with underwater sensors and the like, to be deployed around Navy ships when they were docked around the world. But the project, which has cost more than $100 million so far, was riddled with waste and almost certainly with fraud. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service was given the project and contracted with a little company called Northern NEF in Colorado Springs, which had done small-scale defense work but nothing like this. Northern NEF was told to hire an outfit in Alexandria, VA, P-Con Consulting,which was paid at least $3.6 million essentially to act as a middleman with the actual manufacturer in England -- and turned out to have a personnel connection to NCIS.

Earlier this month the General Services Administration told a House subcommittee that much about the project was "extremely bad and extremely illegal." Northern NEF was apparently chosen because it was small enough that it didn't have to get jobs through competitive bidding, and it kept its invoices under $3 million to avoid triggering a competitive process. Three people may yet be prosecuted.

All this and "Navy officilas advised us that the barriers were prone to leaks, can deflate completely, and that defects caused barrier gates to remain open," according to a GSA auditors report in 2004. The waste might never have come to public attention except for a Washington Post story, which has lots more details. Read it and weep.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Cheney's obsession with secrecy

I don't know exactly how to explain Dick Cheney. We had an editorial board meeting with him early in the Bush presidency (but after 9/11) and he is obviously quite intelligent and even has a sense of humor, though it's a little dark. But his obsession with secrecy and power seems to be all-consuming.

"Miniver loved the Medici
Albeit he had never seen one.
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one." -- Edwin Arlington Robinson

The best explanation I've heard is that the lesson he took from Watergate was not that it was an egregious abuse of power but that it was a darned shame because it had the effect of undermining the powers of the president/presidency, which he apparently sees as almost limitless. The president should not only be powerful, he should be able to keep almost everything he want to secret and operater in the shadows. Not for our Miniver any foolishness about transparency or accountability to the mere people. Dick Cheney has spent the rest of his life trying to rebuild presidential power and in Dubya he seemed to have a willing student. But the upshot of their efforts might well be to discredit the idea of expansive presidential power almost as much as Watergate did -- or more.

Here's just one example. Four years ago Bush issued an executive order on the handling of classified material. All executive-branch offices are supposed to report how they handle such material to an office in the National Archives and Records Adminsitration. Cheney's office has not only not done so, it tried to get the office abolished.

His excuse? The office of the vice president is not strictly part of the executive branch, since the vice president is also president of the Senate. It's quite a stretch, but Cheney is an old hand at stretching the rules, including the laws and international conventions on torture.

The Washington Post has started a series on Cheney's love of power, secrecy and stretching the rules -- probably one of those mulltipart series newspapers put together when they're thinking about Pulitzers. Nonetheless, it looks to be worth reading.

Hillary's gang

Here's an interesting piece on Hillary's gang -- aides and advisers who have been with her a long time. Patti Solis Doyle, Hillary's first hire in 1991, is still with her, now as overseer of the national campaign. Ann Lewis is still around, and is former White House social secretary Capricia Marshall, and Evelyn Lieberman, who fired Monica Lewinsky,and Maggie Williams. And Mandy Grunwald, Neera Tanden and Huma Abedin.

A few men are allowed into the inner circle, including strategist (whatever that is -- when I see the term as a description on a talking head on cable news I always assume it's an unemployed campaign consultant) Mark Penn, communications director Mark Wolfson, Harold Ickes (perfect name), and Terry McAuliffe.

The only person who has run for president in the last couple of decades that I've found inherently interesting is Ron Paul, Still, perhaps we should start memorizing these names now because these people could be running our lives in a couple of years.

Busy weekend

Haven't had much of a chance to look at or think about the news or blogging (as usual on weekends but moreso this weekend). Had to take Justin to the airport Saturday. He's bringing the grandsons out for the summer, so there's much to do, starting with two-year-old-proofing the house and figuring out which closet we put the toys in. Then stocking up on food kids like. They would probably be happy with macaroni and cheese three meals a day but we'll try to give them a little more variety. To add to matters, Jen and her brother saw the sample maker Friday to get started on their invention we hope will take the biker world by storm. (The patent application is filed but not the trademark so I won't say more just now.)

Anyhoo, I didn't even get started on yardwork 'til 3 in the afternoon each day. But the pool is clean and beautiful, trees and bushes trimmed and most of the mess swept up. So on to such trivialities as politics.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

FTC and Whole Foods

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the Federal Trade Commissions's jihad against Whole Foods, the organic food chain.The FTC has filed suit to block Whole Foods' merger/acquisition with Wild Oats, a smaller and much less successful organic foods company, on antitrust grounds. If I had my druthers the antitrust laws would be repealed and we would rely on untrammeled entry rather than government micromanagement (which more often reduces rather than increases competitiveness in a market) to maintain competition. But even under the antitrust laws, the FTC had to come up with an eccentric definition of the supermarket/specialty marketplace to have a really stretched justification to oppose this merger.

The Register would take this position on a similar case no matter what we knew about the ideological propensities of the protagonists. But the fact that Whole Foods CEO John Mackey is a self-declared libertarian who wrote a piece for us last summer (which may be the real reason the FTC is attacking) makes it sweeter to defend him. Don't know whether it's wise or not (it seems to provoke the bureaucrats), but John Mackey has a lengthy and often-updated blog going at the Whole Foods Website.

The mess in Gaza

Here's an article, from an Israeli professor, that argues that Hamas' ascendancy in Gaza actually represents an opportunity for Israel. And I thought I had a tendency to look on the bright side! The point is not trivial, however. For decades the Palestinians have been divided into "responsible" and "militant" wings (I know that's way oversimplified), with one branch (Fatah) talking with Israel and the international community while the other (Hamas) did bombings and the like. This had some advantages. Now, however, Hamas will be responsible for electricity, water and garbage collection in Gaza. Will it be able to combine that with complete militancy? Israel should talk and work with Hamas on such matters without formally recognizing it, Gadi Taub says, because "a stable enemy government is far better than a bunch of feuding warlords competing for the dubious title of staunchest enemy of Zionism."

For a somewhat less sanguine view, here's a long analysis from Nathan E. Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. I've used Nathan as a source several times and have always found him informed and balanced and ready to say he doesn't know when he doesn't, which not all so-called experts will. He thinks Fatah, whose corruption and inattention to daily governance opened the opportunity for Hamas to win parliamentary elections 16 months ago, is as responsible for the current chaos as Hamas. He also thinks that U.S. officials who keep talking about the "Road Map" to a two-state solution are completely out of touch with reality on the ground, verging on delusional. And open support for Fatah is two-edged, with the danger of feeding the impression that Fatah is nothing more than a puppet of Israel and the U.S., possibly increasing suipport for Hamas. Hard to see a way out.

Friday, June 22, 2007

More on Ron Paul and Iowa

Here's a link to historian Thomas Woods' excellent piece today on, updating the Ron Paul/Iowa candidates' forum situation. Tom has been making phone calls and checking Web sites to get a little more background and more current information.

He did talk to Ed Failor, exec director of Iowans for Tax Relief. He got an unpleasant impression but firm resolve that under no circumstances would Ron Paul be invited to the June 30 event. It turns out that Failor was originally for former NY Gov. Pataki (!) but is now on some sort of executive steering committee for John McCain, to whom he has given money. Why that means Ron Paul is to be excluded when Duncan Hunter and other second (or third) tier candidates are invited has not been explained.

Woods also talked to some Iowa Christian Alliance people who said excluding Paul was strictly Failor's thing, not an ICA policy. But he noticed that while their Website had links to other candidates, including utterly unknown fourth-tier candidates, they had none to Ron Paul. They corrected that, but took down a link to Ron's YouTube site that was there before (though I just checked and it seems to be there now). Looks as if there's something more in the animus than simply yielding to Failor.

It's sad to contemplate the likely reason. The main thing that distinguishes Ron Paul from the other GOP candidates is his unflinching, right-from-the-beginning opposition to the war in Iraq (I suspect no others have his position on the gold standard or abolishing the federal reserve, but that isn't what's made him prominent.) Can it be that a putatively Christian organization (let alone a putatively pro-tax relief outfit) believes that questioning a war puts you so completely outside the pale that such views have to be excluded? In Iowa? I know many evangelicals supported this war and support an aggressive foreign policy, sometimes for reasons that seem utterly balmy to me. But to feel so strongly about it as to exclude the single critic among the contenders? I repeat, what would Jesus think?

In fact, these two organizations may well have done Ron Paul a favor by excluding him,. If he had been invited it would have been a relatively obscure event that got little coverage, I suspect. Now it's become a cause celebre that gives Ron Paul more favorable coverage (if still almost entirely on the blogosphere so far) and an opportunity for his supporters to do a protest that will make the excluders look bad and demonstrate support for his candidacy.

If I were into conspiracy theories, I might wonder whether Ed Failor was a secret Ron Paul supporter.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

FBI even violates the Patriot Act

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on a federal judge ordering the FBI to turn over documents relating to its apparent violation even of the looser standards under the Patriot Act in its use of what are called National Security Letters. NSLs are demands to turn over information -- phone records, banks records, etc -- that are issued without resort to a judge to sign a warrant and that by law cannot be disclosed to anyone else except one's attorney. The Patriot Act gave the FBI more authority -- too much in my view -- to use NSLs, but the FBI went beyond even that power at least 1,000 (maybe many more than that) times since 2002, according to its own internal audit.

When a less extensive Department of Justice audit turned up similar evidence back in March or April the Electronic Frontier Foundation asked for the relevant documents under the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI dragged its feet, but now a federal judge has ordered it to comply. Good. The fewer secrets the government can keep the better.

Supremes on Fourth Amendment

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the recent Supreme Court decision regarding whether the passenger in a car has been "seized" by a traffic stop and can therefore contest the legality of the stop in order to suppress evidence found in a subsequent search. The Supremes said yes, affirming that the Fourth Amendment should be applied uniformly across the country (California had opted for a truly eccentric position). Good for them.

Walter Williams and Tom Sowell

A commenter says the last time he looked Walter Williams was pretty much pro-war, though he didn't see how that stance fit with the rest of his outlook on life. As a long-time admirer, neither do I, presuming it's true, and unfortunately I wouldn't be surprised. I guess I can understand a "go get 'em" reaction to 9/11 and genuine concern about the threat of jihadist terrorism, but that really doesn't necessarily imply supporting the war in Iraq. In fact, the stronger case is that the war in Iraq has strengthened the jihadists and diverted the U.S. from doing something effective about them.

As for Tom Sowell, he came to visit the Register probably four or five years ago, and I consider it a privilege to have spent so much time with him. But the Register still subscribes to his column and we've increasingly found that so many are pro-war -- and not necessarily in the most thoughtful manner -- that we simply can't use them. My suspicion is that as he's gotten older he's simply become more crankily conservative. I think I can understand that but I don't have to like it. His more scholarly work is still first-rate, but his columns are erratic in quality any more. Shame.

Gitmo to close?

The most obvious thing to say is, it's about time -- though I guess it's not exactly a sure thing. Nonetheless, this story suggests that the administration is on the verge of a decision to close the detention center/prison/whatever at Guantanamo Bay, perhaps transferring the 380-odd prisoners to military prisons elsewhere, perhaps Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas.

In a way, there may not be much of a choice. This administration hasn't been much for paying attention to existing law, but the Supreme Court last year said the Gitmo situation was unacceptable. Last Fall Congress (when it was still in Republican hands) passed a military commissions bill to set up military commissions or tribunals to try the prisoners. But a couple of weeks ago military judges sitting on a commission -- presumably handpicked to be fairly compliant -- said it didn't have the authority to try the two low-level prisoners brought before it. (What happened to bringing charges against the "worst of the worst?")

It would hardly do to predict that this administration, so in love with the idea of untrammeled exeecutive power, was bowing to chacks and balances. But it might just not have any other options left.

One may hope. The idea of holding prisoners indefinitely without bringing charges -- denying that they are POWs (who could under international law be held until the end of the war) is simply repugnant to American traditions and any semblance of the rule of law.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Ron Paul as candidate

We've had a couple of comments regarding the possibility that Ron Paul may be somewhat less than the ideal candidate, or whether, at 71, he's a little old to be the one to carry the banner of opposition to war and big government. The facile answer, of course, is "who else you got?" but let's go a little beyond that.

I was a little concerned when some friends of mine said Ron looked awfully wan on television early on, and he does look older than one might like, a bit like everybody's grandpa. When I saw him at the candidates' forum in Simi Valley, however, I thought he looked much better in person than he does on television. He's thin -- partly because he's something of an exercise addict and perhaps because he always has been -- but life extension people say that's a good sign in an older person who wants to extend his vigorous life.

Let's face it, Ron is not exactly Mr. Charisma, though he has a definite charm that I think comes through even when he's confined to sound bites. One can imagine a stronger debater, but he's not bad. He showed a sense of humor on Colbert that I think comes through. He comes through as likeable and not very threatening, even when he says fairly radical things.

Might somebody else have carried the libertarian antiwar banner better? Maybe. Lots of people would have liked Walter Williams to run (though frankly I'm not sure where he is on the war). But Ron has been doing it for a long time now, and he's definitely a serious person.

I think it was 1976 when Ron was first elected to Congress, and it was shortly after that that I first met him; I was living in Washington at the time, probably between jobs, and got an assignment to do a profile of him for Conservative Digest, a long-defunct magazine. I was charmed by the fact that he said he had read "Human Action" all the way through, which I hadn't at the time. There was also something about him you recognized as genuine, a deep devotion to liberty that I think many of us quickly sense about one another; it was immediately obvious when I met Milton Friedman, David Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell, Bill Bradford and a few others -- and with Ron Paul. When I was writing Washington pieces for Reason magazine in the late 1970s I used his office as a resource regularly. We're not close friends, but we've seen one another from time to time over the years, when he was traveling or I was in Washington or we went to the same conference.

Ron has done something fairly unique: he's been elected and reelected in Texas without ever compromising his principles. He uses the word "constitutionalist" more than "libertarian" when he's campaigning, he's sincerely pro-life (he wrote a short book on the subject), and he's genuinely a bit more populist than I, so that helps in a Republican district. But the party establishment has tried to get rid of him several times, changing the district's configuration, financing primary opponents, etc. He's managed to get elected and reelected, so he has some political skills.

In Congress he has been called "Dr. No," voting against every unbalanced budget and virtually every proposal to expand government or extend regulation. He voted against more funds for NASA when NASA was in his district. So he has not only talked his principles, he has lived them and taken risks for them. Throughout his career he has made eloquent floor statements explaining his position. Naturally, he voted against the Iraq war, not only because he sees it as unconstitutional, but because he knows that wartime is always a time when governments expand their powers.

I think the founders hoped Congress would be full of people like Ron Paul -- people who took the constitution seriously, who voted on principle rather than pandering to special interests, who understood the founding documents and the importance of limited governmen -- but in our era there has been just one. Others in Congress have come close to matching his devotion to principle, and several dozen have joined his Liberty Caucus. But Ron Paul is one of a kind.

He may be 71 but he's healthy and vigorous. One can imagine a more charismatic figure, but Ron is solid, intelligent, and serious about his beliefs without taking himself too seriously. I think that's coming through to those who pay attention.

More on Iraq offensive

Last night I said I wasn't quite sure what to make of the Iraq offensive. From what I read and from people I talked to today, it seems the U.S. military is trying to get beyond the live-to-fight-again aspect of insurgency/guerrilla warfare by cordoning off the region they're attacking so the insurgents can't escape and turn up elsewhere in a few days or a week. They're doing it by trying to surround the area, and also going through neighborhoods and doing fingerprints and other biometric IDs on most residents, especially those they suspect of being insurgents. Reportedly they have about 100 local residents recruited to act as informants, though it's bound to be difficult to know which of these can be trusted. The operation is also complicated by the fact that unlkike in Fallujah, where the l0cal residents were warned and most of them left, in this offensive local residents are still there, though they've been asked/warned to stay in their homes. So the likelihood of innocent civilian casualties is pretty high.

It almost always takes several days for the outcome of a military operation to be really clear -- sometimes longer. First reports are likely to be incomplete at best, and are often inaccurate.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Tide turning?

I've been accused of being a Pollyanna, and I admit my nature is optimistic. Despite all the terrible things that go on ion the world, the tragedies governments and other power-trippers cause, I try not to be too burdened with doom-and-gloom. And despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary, I still believe the course of humankind over the long run is toward more freedom, more satisfaction, more opportunities for happiness. I expect the State to wither away someday. So shoot me (I'm sure plenty of people wouldn't mind).

Perhaps that's why I'm willing to see a bit of a healthy trend in the area of civil liberties and perhaps even the rule of law in the U.S. But there's some evidence as well. A couple of weeks ago two military judges -- military judges hand-picked to handle the detainees at Guantanamo and probably considered "reliable" -- summarily dismissed war crimes charges against two Gitmo detainees. They ruled the Military Commission Act of 2006, the hand-tailored legislation that was supposed to make getting some semblance of respectable trials a snap, lacked jurisdiction because it only applied to "unlawful enemy combatants" and those at Gitmo had not been classified "unlawful."

I can't help thinking they were telling the administration they weren't willing to do its dirty work. They were pushing back against arbitrary executive power.

Then a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit federal appeals court -- generally viewed as a conservative venue (though two of the three were appointed by Clinton) ruled that the president cannot indefinitely imprison Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, even though the government claims he took training with al-Qaida in Ahghanistan and was in the country as a sleeper. He was here as a legal resident, the judges said, and you can't just toss him in a military brig indefinitely. He wasn't captured on a battlefield but in Peoria. Either bring charges against him in a civilian court or let him go.


Then late last week, after news came out that an internal FBI audit showed that the FBI had overstepped even the lenient bounds of surveillance provided by National Security Letters under the misnamed Patriot Act -- at least 1,000 times since 2,002 and maybe several thousand -- a district court judge ordered the FBI to turn over tens of thousands of documents relating to the abuses to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which had sued to get them under the Freedom of Information Act, and to do it promptly.

The founders created a divided government with checks and balances in the hope that the three branches would discipline one another when one branch or the other was tempted to abuse its power. It's not a perfect system, and outrageous power grabs of the type the Bush administration has been doing tend to have some lasting power even if they are partially curbed. But there are checks and balances and people willing to trigger them. Perhaps all is not lost.

Anbar tribal coalition crumbling?

In recent weeks numerous administration officials, and CT Sen. Joe Lieberman have cited the fact that a coalition of tribes, mostly Sunni, in Anbar Province, have come together to fight against al-Qaida. The Iraqis were apparently getting their act together and going after al-Qaida, and this was taken as evidence that the U.S. must be doing something right.

According to this story, however, the coalition is crumbling. "In an interview in his Baghdad office, one Ali Hatem Suleiman, a leader of the Dulaim confederation, said that the Anbar Salvation Council would be dissolved because of internal dissatisfaction over its cooperation with U.S. soldiers and the behavior of the council's most prominent member, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha. Suleiman called Abu Risha a 'traitor' who 'sells his beliefs, his religion and his people for money.'"

The U.S. has not denied that it was subsidizing the council with weapons and money. The question was always whether such a group would stay bought. Apparently not, at least for now.

Ron Paul frozen out of Iowa debate

Two Iowa groups, Iowans for Tax Relief and the Iowa Christian Alliance, are hosting a Republican candidates' forum June 30, and so far seem to have deliberately chosen not to invite Ron Paul. The Paul campaign called Ed Failor of Iowans for Tax Relief, and he simply said Ron was not invited and would not be invited, didn't offer an explanation, and ended the conversation. The campaign left a message for Steve Scheffler of the Christian Alliance, but hasn't made direct contact as of now.

If that's the same Ed Failor who was active in Young Republicans back in the '60s, when I was still a Republican activist in college, I thought he was a bad customer then, a supposed conservative more interested in power than principle, though I'll, admit I was in a different faction, and intense factionalism was one of the reasons I became disillusioned. And can it be that a group dedicated to the Prince of Peace would exclude a candidate because he is opposed to a war? Let's hope not!

If you're interested in contacting these people yourself, here's the information:

Edward Failor
Iowans for Tax Relief
2610 Park Ave.
Muscatine, IA 52761
Phone: 563-288-3000, or 877-913-3600
Fax: 563-264-2413

Steve Scheffler
Iowa Christian Alliance
939 Office Park Rd, #115
West Des Moines, IA 50265
Phone: 515-2251515
Fax: 515-225-1816

Interesting. On the same day the Paul campaign got this news, it got a call confirming that Ron is invited to the nationally-televised ABC-sponsored debate August 5 in Des Moines.

Offensive in Iraq

I'm not quite sure what to make of the latest U.S. offensive in Iraq, begun under cover of night, with 10,000 troops. That's a lot of troops to commit to an offensive in this kind of conflict. I'll call some people who might be in a better position to know tomorrow, but it seems to be a deviation from the "surge" strategy -- a straight military-type offensive supported by helicopters rather than policing-cum-Iraqis and winning hearts and minds.

I'm thinking the U.S. commanders think there's a significant concentration of insurgents in the area north of Baghdad who can be taken out with a "normal" military operation. So far they say they've killed 22 of them. What usually happens in a guerrilla-insurgency campaign is that the insurgents are able to slip away when confronted with a large number of government troops and live to fight another day. Guerrillas generally avoid set-piece battles because they're aware they can seldom win them. But this might be an unusual situation. We should know more tomorrow and in the following days.

Unfortunately the offensive coincided with a truck bombing near a Shia mosque in Baghdad that killed 75 people -- mostly worshippers it seems -- and wounded at least 200. The death toll is likely to rise as they pull bodies out of the rubble.

Abu Ghraib and Gen. Taguba

Here's a link to Seymour Hersh's excellent New Yorker article based on several interviews with Gen. Antonio Taguba, who was assigned by the military to investigate possible abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib prison, and some other reporting. Gen. Taguba did an excellent job, but when he was called to meet then-Defense Sec. Rumsfeld and other top brass, Rumsfeld greeted him in a mocking manner: "Taguba, describing the moment nearly three years later, said sadly, 'I thought they wanted to know. I assumed they wanted to know. I was ignorant of the setting.'"

Taguba's assignment was narrow: he was told not to follow the abuse up the chain of command, just to discover who had done it. But he's sure responsibility lies higher up than the few enlisted personnel and one officer who were punished. "Those M.P. troops were not that creative. Somebody was giving them guidance, but I was legally prevented from further investigation into higher authority. I was limited to a box." He certainly doesn't think Rumsfeld was frank as to what he knew and when he knew it.

Having documented abuse , even though he didn't investigate up the chain of command. Gen. Taguba was (what did you expect?) punished. He "had been scheduled to rotate to the Third Army's headquarters, at Fort McPherson, Georgia, in June of 2004. He was instead ordered back to the Pentagon, to work in the office of the Assistant Secretary of Reserve Affairs. 'It was a lateral assignment,' he said with a smile and a shrug. 'I didn't quibble. If you're going to do that to me, well, O.K. We all serve at the pleasure of the President. ' A retired four-star Army general later told Taguba that he had been sent to the job in the Pentagon so that he could 'be watched.' Taguba realized that his career was at a dead end.'"

He has since retired. Personal and institutional integrity don't seem to be rewarded very consistently in our military.

MSM notices Ron Paul's Web presence

It's still got a bit of a look-at-the-freak-show quality, but this Washington Post story represents a bit of an acknowledgment that something is going on with Ron Paul that's worth paying attention to. It notes that on Technorati, "the most frequently searched item this week was YouTube. Then comes Ron Paul." Ahead of "Sopranos," "Paris Hilton" and iPhone. Ron Paul is more popular on Facebook than John McCain. He has more friends on MySpace than Mitt Romney "His MeetUp groups, with 11,924 members in 279 cities, are the biggest in the Republican field." His YouTube videos "have been viewed more than 1.1 million times -- more than those of any other candidate, Republican or Democrat, except Sen. Barack Obama."

The main reason, of course, is his opposition to the war. Coming from a man whose other positions, on government spending, regulation, size of government, etc., are to "the right of the right," it makes for an attractive position. One Carnegie-Mellon student, who has actually donated $50 to Paul, says, "I'm not supporting him because I think he could get the nomination. I'm supporting him because I think he can influence the national conversation about what the role of government is, how much power should government have over our lives, how much liberty we should give up for security."

Not bad reasons.

I friend of mine last week suggested that if both parties nominate a candidate early, significant bumbers of people get "buyers' remorse" and a movement grows gfor an independent or bipartisan alternative, the candidates ought to be Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, who would give voters an antiwar alternative, rather than someone like Michael Bloomberg. An intriguing notion.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Al Qaida and France

Here's an interesting piece by Bruce Riedel of Brookings Institution, arguing that "One of Al Qaeda's top priotities in the last year has been to create a franchise in Algeria to serve as a node for jihad in North Africa and throughout the Maghrebi disapora in Europe." I've blogged previously about al-Qaida (my preferred spelling, though I'm in a decided minority there) setting up shop (actuially recruiting an existing organization, the Algerian Salafist Group for Peraching and Combat) in Algeria, and especially about sending young Algerians to Iraq to gain training and experience and get "blooded" in guerrilla and terrorist activity. Riedel says jihadist Websites have predicted an attack on France since Nicholas Sarkozy's victory in France's presidential race. (The fact that Sarkozy's coalition got a smaller majority than expected in subsequent parliamentary elections will probably have an impact mainly on domestic issues. France's socialists won't impede his anti-terrorist moves.)

This notion that al-Qaida might be planning more dramatic attacks fits with recent news reports and with a recent piece by Michael Scheuer, who headed up the CIA's al-Qaida shop for years. He says the U.S. has barely disrupted al-Qaida's central command (though it has done some damage), but that with the Iraq war inflaming Muslim antagonism and aiding recruiting, al-Qaida may be more dangerous than ever.

This is part of the tragedy of the war in Iraq. By starting a war instead of actually going after al-Qaida in various ways -- including intelligence, what is essentially police work, and perhaps the occasional special operation -- the U.S. diverted resources and attention from the clearer danger -- and aided al-Qaida in the process, offering a target for recruiters and a place where al-Qaida recruits and operatives could get real-world experience with very little risk to the organization -- or, rather, the widely distributed network. Resisting the urge to intervene militarily in the Muslim world in so public and provocative a fashion would have done much more to weaken al-Qaida and its appeal among disaffected Muslims.

About Putin and Russia

Here's a link to the piece I did last week for, about Russian President Vladimir Putin, suggesting some explanations for his recent behavior. I think it's basically that in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet regime Russia wants to think of itself as a great Power again, and when oil is at $65 a barrel (especially since the state took over most oil operations), and the world's largest reserves of natural gas, it has the financial wherewithal to start thinking of itself that way again. One of Antiwar's letter-writers said he was disappointed, that it was the kind of mainstream analysis he might expect on CNN (though I'm not aware of CNN doing it quite the same way) Ah, well. Judge for yourself.

Incidentally, I put the links to Antiwar a week or so late because the site always gives my most recent article the simple URL of, then gives it a specific article number and puts it in the article archives when I send them a new one. So if you want to see mymost recent work there, that URL will always get you there.

Lost weekend

Not that it was a lost weekend personally. I got to visit with in-laws, see my youngest son and his cousin, who are working together but whom I havcen't seen in several weeks. Had a lovely BBQ Friday and did countless errands Saturday. Did a lot of work around the house, including getting a start on trimming those overgrown oleanders. And I got a matching t-shirt and baseball cap that say "SuperDad," and an improved semi-automatic pool-cleaning device is expected this week. But enough about me. I didn't do any blogging, though I had some thoughts. Let's see if we can make up for lost time.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Paris was treated harshly

Well, my intuition was right. The L.A. Times has done an analysis of 1,500 cases similar to Paris Hilton's -- violating probation or driving without a license after a DUI -- and found that Paris Hilton will serve more time than 80 percent of people in similar circumstances. This wasn't necessarily the case before the early-release program begun in 2002 due to severe jail overcrowding, but it is certainly the case now. Most people in such circumstances are sentenced to 14 days and actually serve about 4. Paris was sentenced to 45 days and is expected to serve avout 23. The Times notes that "She is believed to be the first inmate in years who actually was sent back to jail to serve more of her term."

Witless in Gaza

It's hard to know just what to make of the situation in Gaza, where Palestinians affiliated with Hamas are killing Palestinians affiliated with Fatah and vice versa. and the situation has escalated into at least paramilitary action and something very close to a civil war is breaking out. Now Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas has dissolved the government in which Hamas gained a majority through elections last year and ... well, who knows? Apparently Hamas now effectively controls Gaza, while the Fatah-led quasi-government of Abbas has effective control of the West Bank. Israel (and probably the U.S.) has been supporting Fatah quietly. Who knows where things will stand in the next day or so.

This basically blows up the Hamas-Fatah peace deal the Saudis tried to broker in March, and makes any idea of any eventual peace deal between Israel and Palestine even more unlikely than it was a couple of weeks ago, and it was virtually unthinkable then. But it could well lead to the establishment of a Hamas-led terrorist state in Gaza, which is tiny on the map but big enough to harbor a lot of people and weapons and make trouble not only in the region but beyond. Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are hardly thrilled at the prospect.

Andrew Sullivan has been having some pointed fun wondering on his blog why Glenn Reynolds and other Iraq war supporters don't favor U.S. or allied occupation or re-occupation of Gaza. "Glenn favors indefinite U.S. occupation of Iraq to prevent a terror-state energing in the chaos we helped unleash there. So why is he happy to allow Gaza to become a terror-state without our military intervention? Isn't the threat to the West the same -- or maybe worse?"

The corollary of the question, of course, is that if is tolerable to allow a terror-state to emerge in Gaza -- not that it is inevitable yet or maybe ever -- why is it intolerable to withdraw from Iraq, where there is certainly a serious prospect of tragic sectarian fighting, but the emergence of a state dominated by al-Qaida or an explicit international terrorist outfit is in fact rather unlikely?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Pakistani troubles

Just a little beneath active recognition, Pakistan is potentially shaping up to be a serious problem, and for various reason's Pakistan's troubles could be the U.S.'s problems. Last week in a government-led crackdown hundreds of media people and members of opposition parties were arrested, mostly in Punjab, the most populous province.

The arrests come in the wake of growing discontent over President Pervez Musharraf's decision three months ago to fire the country's chief justice because he was not pliable enough. Though formally term-limited, most Pakistanis believe Musharraf wants another five years in office. Musharraf has allowed elections and declared himself a firm U.S. ally in the wake of 9/11. But he came to power through the military and he rules in an increasingly authoritarian manner.

This comes at a time when al-Qaida and sympathetic forces are known to be active in the northern tribal regions bordering Afghanistan (where in truth no Pakistani government has ever really ruled effectively) and many believe Osama bin Laden is holed up there. Remember, Pakistani intelligence services were helpful in installing the Taliban in Afgfhanistan, and the military and intelligence service (ISI) harbor many al-Qaida and jihadist sympathizers.

The other complication is that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Plenty of people are worried that Iran may get nukes someday. But if a jihadist-sympathizing faction overthrows Musharraf, the day of a radical Islamist regime having nuclear weapons could be instant rather than a matter of five or 10 years depending on which dubiously reliable intelligence you believe.

Don't ask, don't tell stupidity

Here's a poignant piece by Stephen Benjamin, formerly a Navy petty officer, that illustrates rather well the stupidity of the "don't ask don't tell" policy that makes it possible to kick gays out of the U.S. military just for being gay and having the fact discovered. Benjamin was an Arabic translator. According to him, when he was confronted and chose not to lie:

"My supervisors did not want to lose me. Most of my peers knew I was gay, and that didn't bother them. I was always accepted as a member of the team. And my experience was not anomalous: polls of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan show an overwhelming majority are comfortable with gays. Many were aware of at least one gay person in their unit and had no problem with it."

More than 58 Arabic translators have been kicked out since DADK was instituted. How much harm has been done, how many troops have needlessly been put in harm's way because of this stupid policy?

I have trouble understanding why anyone would actively want to be in the military, but those who desire to serve shouldn't be denied the opportunity because of outdated ideas about "unit cohesion" and outright bigotry.

Ease up

I not only welcome comments I almost live for them. I think anaonymous rather overdid it with the overlong and formulaic critique of capitalism left on last night's Quote of the Day. Go read it if you like, but I hope anonymous will read Milton Friedman's "Capitalism and Freedom" or Henry Hazlitt's "Economics in One Lesson." Competition may seem wasteful at a surface level (and sometimes really is) but without it we would see little innovation and fewer people lifted out of poverty.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Quote of the Day

"In spite of popular myths about capitalism oppressing the poor, the poor are worse off in those things provided by government ... There are more good cars in the ghetto than good schools." -- David Friedman, (one of the most incredibly smart people I've ever met) in "The Machinery of Freedom."

Guardsmen smuggling illegals

This story is just too much fun not to mention. Three members of the Texas National Guard, assigned to helping to patrol the border to keep out illegal aliens, have been charged with smuggling illegal aliens. Federal agents found one of them, in uniform, driving a van leased by the National Guard, crammed to the gunwales with 24 illegal aliens.

It turns out that three of these stalwarts, including two sergeants have been running a lucrative smuggling business for some time, charging fees of $1,500 to $2,000 per illegal immigrant.

The story includes a statement from the Guard's head honcho that this is rare and the other Guard members are fine and upstanding. It probably isn't all that prevalent, given the short time National Guard personnel have been assigned to the border. But it points up that fact that whenever you prohibit something that people are willing to pay an inflated price to procure, some of the enforcers are going to go corrupt because of the monetary rewards available. The most prominent example, of course, is the drug war, which has led to the corruption of thousands of cops and agents. It's just human nature.

Past Iranian paranoia

Here's a fascinating piece by Peter Hitchens, Christopher Hitchens' avowedly conservative ( don't presume to know what Christopher is evolving into since he bacame a war hawk) and decidely anti-Iraq-war brother, who stayed in England, writing for the Daily Mail. Peter traveled to Iran, which he describes as:

"the country that has been designated as the next official enemy of what is still called "The West." I came away so completely opposed to this silly hostility that I fear I am in danger of stirring up apathy ... I am a Cold War veteran who believes in deterrence and accepts that there was a genuine Soviet threat. I am an incorrogible Zionist. I think my own country has allowed its armed forces to become lamentably weak. But I think the difference between the official account of Iran as sinister menace and the Iran I experienced is so great that it is a sort of duty to draw attention to it."

He wasn't allowed a press visa, so he traveled unsupervised as a tourist, through most of the country. He is far from denying that the regime is obnoxious and that the country has more than its share of religious fanatics. However, "I met anti-regime intellectuals in fashionable cafes, ordinary provincial people in their own homes, devout Muslims and fierce skeptics, regular consumers of illegal alcohol, religious zealots, students, and feminists facing prosecution." He maintains that "Despite a still fearsome formal repressive apparatus, which swiftly and disgustingly punishes formal open dissent in newspapers or in street demonstrations, private conversation is quite unregulated, deeply irreverent, and totally fearless."

Hitchens says the Iranian regime is "stupid, oppressive, cruel, lawless, and intolerant." However, "I would like to give pause to all who imagine that Iran is a place of undifferentiated evil, malice, oppression, and fanaticism, or our natural and rightful enemy."

Primary musings

Here's an interesting piece by David Greenberg, who does the history lesson feature for, on the presidential primary system. He contends that "instead of producing what you'd expect from democracy -- greater disagreement, difference and unpredictability -- the ascent of binding primaries has turned the pre-convention months into a dreary slog. After a flurry of excitement surrounding Iowa and New Hampshire, front-runners typically amass springtime victories like a college football team running up the score in the last quarter." I think 1968 was the last time a June primary had any impact on the outcome. This makes conventions, which used to contain a modicum of suspense (and therefore interest -- they were sort of like reality shows) into expensively produced but boring themed ads.

Greenberg doesn't think that the other states moving their primary dates up to within a week or two of the New Hampshire primary will do much to reduce the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire, two atypical states that have had an outsized impact on presidential primaries since the 1950s (New Hampshire) and the 1970s (Iowa). If anything, it might even magnify their impact, since there won't be much time for somebody who comes in third or fourth to mount a recovery in time to take other states.

I think Greenberg's stated expectation for what you might expect from a really vivid democracy is a little pie-in-the-sky, but his analysis of the current system is reasonably spot-on. How to improve it? I don't know. The French system -- an all-comers national election followed by a contest between the top two, whatever the party -- is intriguing to consider, but I suspect it would be resisted. The two major parties have a lot invested in the present system, even if it does induce boredom.

Howard Fineman of Newsweek has suggested (scroll almost to the bottom of this "Hardball" transcript, which also includes an interview with Goerge Tenet that is of some interest) that the two parties will choose their candidates very early under the present configuration, and then some in both parties will start to get "buyer's remorse," which could open the door for a well-financed third-party contendor. Trouble is, the most likely candidate is Bloomberg, who could finance himself, and he's the embodiment of a Republicrat rather than being ideologically distinctive from either party. Chuck Hagel, an Iraq war critic, has dropped hints that he'd be interested, but I don't know if he'd be viable.

Mitt was miffed

Mandie Russell, our wonderful intern at the Register, was at the event with Mitt Romney on Monday with a video camera, and she's posted a video of the question I asked, and his response, on the Register's Commentary blog, Orange Punch. Here's a link. Judge for yourself.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Sparring with Romney

I had a little sparring match with Mitt Romney today over the run-up to the Iraq war. He is in California, mostly doing private meetings and fundraising, but he had a brief media availability before his lunch speech in Corona, and I went out with Mandie Russell, our intern, who videoed the whole thing. We're hoping to have some of it on the Register Web site, but we're still learning (or teaching ourselves) how to do it.

The question I asked had to do with the last Republican candidates' forum, at which Gov. Romney said -- well, here's the transcript, as provided to me by e-mail by the campaign afterward. The question had to do with whether, given what we know now, the Iraq war was justified:

Gov. Romney: "well, the question is, kind of, a non sequitur, if you will. What I mean by that -- or a null set -- that is that if you're saying let's turn back the clock and Saddam Hussein had opened up his country to IAEA inspectors and they'd come in and they'd found that there were no weapons of mass destruction, had Saddam Hussein therefore not violated United Nations resolutions, we wouldn't be in the conflict we're in. But he didn't do those things, and we knew what we knew at the point we made the decision to get in. I supported the President's position based on what we knew at the time."

There's a lot to parse there, including the eccentric use of the term null set, from set theory in mathematics, which doesn't seem applicable at all here. But as I read that statement, it certainly seems to deny, not know or forget that IAEA inspectors were in Iraq until almost the moment of the U.S. invasion. So I asked him if he wanted to correct or clarify the statement.

He got a little huffy and said it needed to be taken in context, that what he meant was that Saddam Hussein hadn't opened the country up to unfettered inspection, that even as the inspectors were there Saddam was stonewalling (Romney's term) and engaging in deceit and deception, not letting the inspectors into his palaces and such. He also said he was tallking about the entire period of inspections, not just in the weeks and months leading up to the war.

I'll accept that clarification, but it still leaves the statement more than a little deceptive. Sure, Saddam's minions engaged in some legerdemain during that period, but it was the most access the IAEA ever had. The IAEA repeatedly queried the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies to give them more detailed information about the leads they had (many of them, as we know now, from Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraq National Congress, including the now-discredited fantasies from "Curveball") so they could really go after them. None of those leads panned out.

Although access was not perfect, the IAEA never did find WMD, nor did the U.S. government, after Saddam's regime had been defeated militarily and the U.S. had access to pretty much everything. That's pretty important, it seems to me. We went to war on the basis of a falsehood -- whether it was a conscious, knowing lie I simply don't know.

In the end, it was President Bush, not Saddam Hussein, who told the IAEA inspectors that it would be a good idea to leave because (as we soon found out) the decision to invade had been made and it was time for a little "shock and awe." President Bush has been twisting this story for years, actually saying in public speeches that Saddam Hussein kicked the inspectors out so we just had to assume he had WMD and go to war (he did in 1998, but not just before the war).

It is important to remember, I think, how the run-up to the war actually went down if we want to make intelligent decisions the next time there's talk of the necessity of war. I think it's defensible to say the Bush administration had decided on war well before the actual invasion (George Tenet in his book claims not to know for sure but thinks December 2002 is a pretty good date for when the decision was virtually irrevocable -- though he has his own axes to grind).

There were probably a number of reasons the administration decided to invade Iraq -- the rationales have shifted noticeably over the years. It may be, as Paul Wolfowitz later told Vanity Fair, that they settled on weapons of mass destruction as the main justification because that was the easiest to explain and they were pretty sure he had 'em.

Anyway, the Romney campaign did send me an e-mail with more detailed information to back up his position, including statements by Condoleezza Rice and then deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. The statement quoted from the Iraq Study Group was interesting but not on-point -- it noted that Saddam's SSO ordered SSO chiefs at local sites "to conceal anything to do with the President or his family" as well as documents relating to human rights abuses and political prisoners. These activities"made it difficult for Western intelligence services to distinguish innocuous security-related measures from WMD concealment ..."

A campaign spokesman, Mark Rhoads, called me to clarify the Romney position more fully. I said I would try to be fair, but I still thought his statement didn't take into account much of importance during the run-up to war. He seems to me to be pushing the idea that it was all Saddam's choice -- he said something very close to that -- whether the war would take place. But the idea that if only Saddam had been more open, and the IAEA had certified more completely that there were no WMD strikes me as naive and unlikely, and pushing it does no service to the American people. This was a war of American choice, not Saddam's choice.

Even if Saddam had WMD, the war would still not have been justified, as I wrote and as the Register editorialized at the time. It was not a defensive war by any stretch of the imagination, nor was it a preemptive war, which is a war begun to counter an imminent threat (the Israeli first strike in the 1967 Six Day War is the most commonly cited modern example). Instead it was what political scientists would call a "preventive" war, one calculated to eliminate a potential threat that might (or might not) mature into a reasonably imminent threat some months or years down the road. That's not the kind of war the United States should be initiating, many of us said at the time, since it is an act of aggression, no matter how large the coalition of the "willing."

Given how the Iraq war has turned out, I think that judgment holds up pretty well and would be a good guide for the future. To rewrite history to try to keep the claim alive that Saddam Hussein somehow forced a reluctant United States to go to war is an unhealthy endeavor.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Quote of the Day

"Every thing secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity." -- Lord Acton

More on immigration

Here's a link to the Register editorial on the unraveling of the immigration deal.

Scooter link

Cn't seem to edit the previous post to put the link in to the Register editorial, so here it is.

Rebuking the FCC

Here's the Register's editorial on a decision Monday by a federal court to tell the Federal Communications Commission it didn't have the constitutional power to issue a fine against a TV network for "incidental expletives" -- celebrities who cursed during an awards show. Good. I'd love to see a case that tested whether the FCC has the constitutional right to exist.

Pardon or commute

Here's the Register's reaction to the 30-month jail sentence for Scooter Libby. Although I can see some difference-- you can make a case that it's more important for high government officials to tell the truth to investigators -- this looks to me like a rerun of the Martha Stewart situation. Somebody under suspicion by a zealous prosecutor for lying about a non-crime -- or at least an act that was never prosecuted as a crime -- who ends up prosecuted for perhjury. An abuse of prosecutorial discretion, in my view.

The Register called for a pardon. I ran into a law professor later who made a case that the president should commute the sentence so Libby serves no jail time. rather than issuing a pardon. I was pretty close to convinced. What do you think?

Six Day War

Here are two rather different views on the Six Day War, whose 40th anniversary occurred last week. There's little question that the war, through which Israel acquired the West Bank of the Jordan and much of Gaza, had a profound impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations and thereby on the entire Middle East.

Tom Segev, a columnist for the Israeli paper Haaretz, asks the provocative question: "What if Israel hadn't taken East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the Six-Day War? Would the Palestinian situation have found some solution and Israel be living at least in relative peace with its neighbors. Would Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism have been avoided?"

The author of the new book, "1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East," (I have a copy but I haven't cracked it yet) thinks that's possible. "Forty years of oppression and Palestinian terrorism, both extremely cruel, have underminded Israel's Jewish and democratic foundations. With about 400,000 Israelis living in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and with extreme Islamism as a driving force among the Palestinians, the conflict has become infinitely more difficult to solve."

On the other hand, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal argues that the war was in some ways the making of modern Israel. It had land it was able offer for peace. The U.S. became a firm ally, more European Jews immigrated, and Christian evangelicals became firm friends. "It is infinitely richer and more powerful today, sure in its alliance with the U.S. and capable of making concessions inconceivable 40 years ago."

These two views are not entirely contradictory. On balance, I'll go with the Israeli. Wall St. Journal types are often ready to praise wars in which other fight and die.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Immigration reform failure

Dan Balz of the WaPo calls the failure of the "comprehensive" immigration reform bill in the Senate "a scathing indictment of the political culture of Washington." I'm not sure if I agree entirely. Not that I have much respect for the political culture of Washington, but this is an issue on which the American people seem to be deeply polarized, and when that's the case it's difficult to find an acceptable compromise. "Leadership" as Balz seems to see it would have meant imposing a bill that is deeply unpopular -- perhaps not justly so, but still notably so.

To be sure, as I've mentioned previously, various polls have showed that the most significant pieces of the compromise -- a path to citizenship involving fines, learning English, back-of-the-line, etc., a guest worker program -- garner substantial support. But this bill has been defined by its opponents -- and perhaps rightly so. There is much to dislike. I find the "points" system objectionable; it would allow the government to define what qualities the society and economy "need" in immigrants, and it would not be subject to change for 14 years. That's giving government a lot more credit for forecasting trends than it deserves. It may be that those who have the cojones to get here on their own are really the most qualified.

The problem, of course, is that failure to pass some kind of bill means acquiescing in the status quo. I'm not sure that's the most objectionable possible outcome, but almost every political figure who discusses immigration, especially the hartdliners, claim to believ that it is utterly intolerable.

More on Tenet's book

Here's a link to the column I did last week for It's a more extensive review of George Tenet's book, "At the Center of the Storm," which if you caught last week's blog I think is worth reading but a long way from the whole truth. Perhaps most fascinating for the way Tenet distances himself from the administration without ever once directly criticizing George W. Bush. The review also includes links to 6 or 8 other books on the war and recent events that I think are worth reading.

More Bush incompetence

Here's an interesting piece by Ann Applebaum, reminding us that when Bush came into office all the pieces were in place for a solidly pro-American bloc in Europe. He was cheered like a conquering hero in Poland, Spain and Italy had center-right governments, all the central European countries had recently undertaken market liberalization, as had Britain, Portugal and Germany, and all were favorably inclined toward the United States. This was "New Europe."

The Iraq war was a big factor, of course, in all these countries (most of them part of the "coalition of the willing") being skepotical and disillusioned with the U.S. now. As Anne Applebaum puts it, "Mortally wounded by Iraq, damaged further by the U.S. administration's lack of interest in its concerns -- change in the U.S. visa regime, military assistance -- New Europe probably will be killed off completely by American plans to build a missile-defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

It didn't have to be so. The Pentagon apparently sprung the plan and announced it publicly before even telling the State Dept., which might have been able to smooth the way. But typical Bush arrogance -- we're America and people should just say yes without us even having to make a case -- has alienated what should have been natural allies.

Friday, June 08, 2007

We'll always have Paris?

Well! If anybody had told me two weeks ago that I would be blogging about Paris Hilton, I would have told them they were crazy. However, despite having had little or no interest in her apparently ditzy antics, I've come to have rather strong feelings about this jail thing.

Naturally, I figure my job is to enter the minority report.

I've watched courts in California as a journalist, and I think I know something about how these things are handled in the normal course of things. I'm convinced that if this had been anybody but Paris Hilton, she would have gotten no jail time at all, or a day or two at most, even for the second time driving on a suspended license, which did violate her probation for a DUI (which was the minimum, .08 blood alcohol, by the way, which is the law but punitively and unnecessarily low). California's prisons and jails are chronically overcrowded (a federal judge has threatened to take over and run the state prison system if the overcrowding isn't addressed by June 30, and there's little or no evidence that it has been). There's just no room in these facilities, given the number of serious offenders and riff-raff, for penny-ante things like driving on a suspended license.

In addition, L.A. County's jails, as Sheriff Lee Baca has pointed out, are under a special order that permits early release to make room for more serious offenders. He is right that in ordinary circumstances, if a judge had been in an especially foul mood and given some poor schlump jail time, that he had discretion to release them after serving 10 percent of the sentence, as she did.

I have no idea whether she really had a medical condition or not.

The fact that the judge, Michael T. Sauer (an appropriate name) gave her 45 days, with 22 to serve was "special treatment" for a celebrity, all right. He threw the book at her because she was a celebrity, to create a phony publicity stunt to "prove" that wealth and celebrity won't get you leniency. He's a panderer to public opinion and a thoroughly disgusting person as far as I'm concerned.

Naturally, I'm disgusted at public opinion. As far as I can tell Paris Hilton is a superficial twit, and I guess I can understand why people have negative feelings about her. But being a superficial twit is not a jailing offense, or shouldn't be in a country with a pretense to the rule of law. Most of the people who say they want her in there because they're for "equal justice" aren't the least bit interested in equal justice, or they would inform themsleves about how ordinary citizens in similar circumstances are handled. Most of them are simply loving the fact that a rich celebrity is being punished, and they want her punished. There's a meanness bordering on sadism in this Schadenfreude that speaks ill of our society.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Who's Afraid of Paul Berman?

A commenter called asia k suggested, in response to my post on Paul Berman's article about European Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, that I post an article by Stephen Suleyman Schwarz that criticizes Berman's piece. As it happens, I ran into that same article independently today, and I'm happy to do so.

Schwarz argues that Berman misunderstands a number of key things about Ramadan. I'm less critical than he of Berman's piece (I think it holds one's attention and is worth entering), but Schwarz's criticisms are mostly worthy. He argues that "Westerners [including Berman] take Ramadan for both a traditionalist and a modernist Muslim, but in fact he's a radical reformer," which has a meaning rather different among Muslim believers than most non-Muslim Westerners might at first think. Like the Muslim Brotherhood (viewed by many as one of the precursors of today's radical jihadism and something of a family business for Ramadan), he says, Ramadan is "calling for a fundamentalist reformism that would supposedly return Islam to what they imagine it to have been at the time of the Prophet Muhammad." Berman misinterprets him, he says, because:

1. He fails to distinguish between religious and political reform.
2. He doesn't challenge Ramadan on the concept of takfir, or excommunication, which declares that "the millions of Muslims who do not accept radicalism are declared to have fallen out of Islam ..."
3. He misrepresents the Muslim Brotherhood, exaggerating its control in Europe.
4. He thinks Muslim Brotherhood cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi is a great scholar, whereas many Muslim scholars consider him "a corrupted frontman for the Saudi and other Arab regimes."
5. He misses the boat on Ramadan and the left, and fails to note that Ayan Hirsi Ali, the Somali dissident who was associated with Theo van Gogh and left Holland for the U.S. and AEI, can be subject to honest criticism and has campaigned against practices (female genital mutilation, honor killings) that are not Muslim or exclusively Muslim.
6. He dismisses Al-Ghazali, the medieval Muslim scholar who "arrived at amost excellent balance of reason and faith."

Schwarz concludes that "There is a moderate Islam, unrepresented by Tariq Ramadan and unrecognized by Ayan Hirsi Ali, and ignored by all Western media purveyors of stereotypes."

To drive that last point home, here's another recent article by Schwarz, "The Myth of Muslim Silence; The Persistence of MSM Silence," that argues that moderate Muslims have issued countless denunciations of terrorism and extreme jihadism, but the mainstream media simply haven't reported the fact. After the Fort Dix arrests, for example, "the Presidency of the Albanian Muslim Community in the U.S. and Canada had published the following declaration: "we were shocked and appalled to receive the news of the possible terror act on Fort Dix Military Base in New Jersey. We strongly condemn violence and terrorist activities perpetrated in the name of Islam ... It is forbidden for a Muslim to cooperate with any individual or group that is involved in any act of terrorism or violence." And on and on.

I can attest that after almost every terrorist attack or arrest, the Register gets faxes and e-mail from CAIR (the most active local Muslim group) condemning the act and condemning terrorism -- and CAIR includes elements not as moderate as I might like. Sometimes we print or excerpt them, sometimes we don't. But I agree there are moderate Muslims who despise terrorism, and it will be increasingly important to recognize them and, where possible, work with and help them. But there are huge cultural gaps, and most people prefer to live by stereotypes. Well, maybe not most, but a lot.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Still haven't found . . .

"Nightline" just did a feature on Bono, who is apparently going to be at the G-8 meeting again, and his humanitarian work, especially in Africa. The words in the U-2 song, "I still haven't found what I'm looking' for," seem especially appropriate.

I have no doubt Bono is sincere, and he seems several cuts above the usual celebrity/humanitarian in intelligence and insight. But aside from a reference he made to "structural problems," he seems not to have figured out what would really help Africa because he hasn't identified the most crucial problem as bad governance and terrible public policies. He does seem to have in inkling that mere foreign aid won't get the job done, but he's still plumping for it.

The late English economist P.T. Bauer outlined the problem many years ago. Most countries are governed badly, but the poorest countries are generally so not because of lack of resources or resourceful people, but because of poorer than average governance. This usually involves a small band of officials at the top, nothing like an independent judiciary, no effective protection for private property, corruption that won't permit a vibrant market economy to emerge. Sending foreign aid to such countries (especially the kind of big-project aid, like dams and such the World Bank used to love, though it may be getting less-worse) tends to reinforce the power of the existing governments, accentuating and subsidizing their worst qualities, the qualities that keep "their" people mired in poverty. In addition, while it might seem churlish to point this out, often enough extensive food aid to poor countries, while it might alleviate immediate emergencies, actually discourages local production of food, making it less profitable, and may delay the development of self-reliance.

If somebody could get Bono to read P.T. Bauer he might figure out ways to channel his celebrity and energy into more positive work.

Ron Paul gets a little MSM attention

I didn't watch the GOP debate last night, though I caught some post-debate commentary as I channel-surfed among the cable "news" networks. The only mention of Ron Paul I heard came from Pat Buchanan, who noticed he got several ovations, which he attributed to a tradition of "libertarian conservatism" in New Hampshire. For the most part the MSM are assiduously avoiding any mention of the Paul buzz on the Internet. They decided at the outset that he (and Gilmore, Thompson, Brownback, Hunter et. al.) was marginal and it will take a lot to change the attitude.

However, the Washington Post today did run a little Style-section human interest-type story on Jared Chicoine, the just-married 25-year-old who is Ron Paul's only paid staffer in New Hampshire. As usual, not much in the way of serious policy discussion and a bit of a bemused, almost condescending tone, but still it was there.

D-Day pieties

Like many newspapers, the Register ran a piece today by a D-Day veteran that contained the usual stuff about how those brave soldiers died for our liberties, that we wouldn't be living in freedom today if it hadn't been for all those willing to make such sacrifices.

I don't doubt the courage or the dedication, or even the sincerity of the sentiment. But this is a piety that deserves to be challenged.

It is precisely in time of war, as Robert Higgs documented in his modern classic, "Crisis and Leviathan," that our liberties are most in danger. During wars the power of government grows, liberties are curtailed, dissenters are viewed with more suspicion and sometimes even branded as traitors, and we get abominations like the Patriot Act, increased electronic surveillance of Americans, less financial privacy, the justification of torture, erosion of habeas corpus and due process and the like.

I don't doubt that most U.S. soldiers sincerely believe they are fighting for our freedom. But when the country goes to war our freedoms are eroded and they never return to full robustness when the war is over