Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Ethanol could raise beer prices

As if you needed one more reason to hate the current craze for subsidizing ethanol, a fad that will do almost nothing to affect global warming but is likely to enrich corn farmers even more. Because more acres are being planted in corn for ethanol, prices for barley and wheat are rising, and some craft brewers are having to raise their prices by as much a a dollar a six-pack. Add the fact that there was an oversupply of hops for a while, leading some farmers to abandon it, which has led to a 30 percent reduction in the supply of hops, which raises the price, and you have the makings of a genuine crisis!

Mock-macho posturing on Iran

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the latest tough talk from Bush and Cheney on Iran. The two have all the sophistication and insight of a couple of fourth-graders on a playground picking on someone smaller than they are -- except they won't be doing the fighting and dying if it comes to that, some other mother's son will do it for them.

Federal malfeasance in Georgia

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the drought in the Southeast (which is real enough) and the way the feds, specifically the Army Corps of Engineers, have made the situation worse for mere human beings in the greater Atlanta area. See, Lake Lanier, huge as it is, is an artificial lake, created by a dam built in 1956. The Army Corps runs it, and it is steadily releasing water to make sure there's enough for an endangered mussel downstream. Worse, last year it improperly calibrated its measuring devices and released 22 billion -- with a b -- more gallons than it would have if its measurements had been correct. It has refused to compensate for that mistake.

The lake provides drinking water for much of greater Atlanta, but it could be effectively dried up in a couple of months. There may be negotiations in Washington tomorrow -- by law the governors of Alabama and Florida get a say because of where the river runs. Hope they keep human needs in mind.

Farm bill fiasco

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the farm bill Congress is on the verge of passing. Although farm income and agricultural prices are at high levels, making this a good time to start to wean the noble yeomen/welfare queens off subsidies, the bill has virtually no reform at all. Sad. Its expansion of the sugar program and beginning of modest subsidies for fruits and vegetables (which aren't subsidized now) might even make it worse. Bush would do well to break out his veto pen.

What Condi might get for Israel/Palestine

I almost resent, as I've mentioned before, that I find Dennis Ross's articles on curent international issues so sensible, but there it is. Here's his take on SecState Condi Rice's current efforts to get some kind of progress going on Israeli/Palestinian peace talks. We scolded her in the Register, noting that peace agreements, if they come, tend to come on the timetable of the parties involved, not just when the U.S. thinks it would be nice (usually when an outgoing president is thinking about his legacy).

Ross would probably agree, but he has some constructive suggestions nonetheless. He notes that both Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas are in relatively weak positions domestically and not in a good position to deliver on promises. If they can't come to agreement on core issues like Jerusalem, refugees or borders, however:

"she might go for lesser, but still important agreement on: the scope of sovereignty, state to state relations, and a process to begin to develop such relations; Israeli territorial withdrawal(s) from the West Bank conditioned on agreed milestones on Palestinian (or others') performance on security; a freeze on expansion of existing Israeli settlements and a commitment not to develop the E-1 area; an ongoing process with agreed criteria on Palestinian prisoner releases to ensure at least some prisoners are released every few weeks; a serious mechanism (with leadership involvement) for ending incitement and the teaching of hatred; working groups to develop options on Jerusalem, refugees and final borders; and implementation committees to ensure all obligations are fulfilled."

Condi's meeting will be sometime in November. If the result is typical diplo-speak -- high-sounding but vague principles developed after "frank" talks -- you can safely call it a failure. If the final statement includes some of these measures, there's just an outside chance that some building blocks toward an eventual settlement are maybe being put in place. It probably won't happen before Dubya leaves office, but it might be constructive nonetheless.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Lakers not bad, but . . .

Now that kind of game is why it can be fun to watch the NBA! At 1:36 left in the fourth -- after delivering several really stupid and unnecessary fouls -- the Lakers were down by 12 to the Houston Rockets. By the time the clock was down to :24-something, they were down by two. Then they got a steal and actually tied the game (Fisher's foot just inside the 3-point arc). I cracked open another beer and settled in to enjoy overtime, when Shane Battier on the Rockets made an impossibly long 3-point shot! The Lakes had time for the old get-fouled-make-the-first-miss-the-second-to a-teammate-who-converts play, but of course it didn't work.

I remember, it must have been six years or so ago, I drove from Atlanta to California (bringing my son's first car) and made sure I stopped in Memphis, where I had not been before. Saw Graceland, of course, and spent several hours on Beale Street. They've done a reasonable job of preservation. Anyway, I talked for a while to a panhandler who called himself the Mayor of Beale Street, and we discussed Shane Battier, whom the Memphis Grizzlies had just drafted. We both figured he would be a good solid NBA player if not a superstar. I don't think he realized his potential at Memphis, but on the strength of this first game he might be on the way to doing so with Houston.

Abuse at Oprah's school

Since many moons ago I expressed myself impressed (and later reported misgivings) with Oprah Winfrey's building of a school for girls to encourage leadership in South Africa, it's incumbent on me to take note of the allegations that at least one of the matrons at the school has been accused of fondling girls inappropriately and maybe having sex with others. Guess that's always a danger in a boarding school, and it seems Oprah herself didn't know about it and acted fairly quickly and appropriately when the evidence came out. But she's learning that good intentions can often be subverted. I suspect she's a good enough manager to put better control mechanisms in place, but the project has undoubtedly been harmed. It's tough to manage things from across the ocean.

Liberal warhawks claiming moral "high ground"

I don't entirely agree with Tony Judt in this article -- to me, for example, the case for U.S. intervention in Kosovo and Bosnia was less than compelling. But he makes a significant point: that "liberal hawks" who supported the Iraq war at the outset but had been somewhat subdued as the war went haywire, are creeping back and making a play for respectability. Thus Jacob Weisberg, Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Beinart, Bob Kerrey and others are arguing that, as Judt puts it "even if the war was a mistake, it was a brave and good mistake and we were right to make it, just as we were right to advocate intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo." He could have included the Times' Tom Friedman. George W. may have let us down by being so incompetent, but we understand Islamo-Fascism and the dangers it poses better than you wussy knee-jerk antiwar types.

Balderdash! The war was wrong at the time because it was a "preventive" war -- waged against a potential threat that might or might not develop in the medium-term future rather than an imminent threat -- and it has made the problem of Islamo-Fascism or jihadism or whatever you want to call it worse, not better. One of he jihadists' best recruiting tools is the U.S> propensity for interventionism and running countries we don't begin to understand, let alone appreciate. Judt does include a great quote from Albert Camus on intellectuals' propensity to encourage violence to be committed and endured by others:

"Mistaken ideas always end in bloodshed, but in every case it is someone else's blood. That is why some of our thinkers feel free to say just about anything."

The seductive, destructive siren song of statism

It is so easy to get caught in the day-to-day swirl of events that we are tempted to forget or not to notice that larger principles, some of them timeless, are at work or at stake. In this piece from the Mises Institute, historian and economist Robert Higgs (he of the great classic "Crisis and Leviathan," reminds us how seductively the State draws us into its world of destruction. "The state is the most destructive institution human beings have ever devised -- a fire that, at best, can be controlled for only a short time before it o'erleaps its improvised confinement and spreads its flames far and wide." People fail to recognize this "because they are told incessantly that the tribute they fork over is actually a kind of price paid for essential services received, and that in the case of certain services, such as ptrotection from foreign and domestic aggressors against their right to life, liberty and property, only the government can provide the service effectively."

After discussing the New Deal, World War II and 9/11, Higgs concludes that "Until people learn to disregard the state's siren song of beneficence and protection, they will continue to suffer and die as victims of the state's wars, foreign and domestic. People yearn for security, and they look to the state to provide it, but they are calling upon a wolf to guard the sheep."

Monday, October 29, 2007

Music and Silence

One of the attractive things to me about what we call "classical" or "serious" music is that it is carefully constructed (most of it) in ways that can be analyzed, dissected and intellectualized. I lost my snobbishness about popular music long ago, but quite frankly a popular song, even one as good as "Night and Day" or "Someone to Watch Over Me" or "When I'm 64" has a fairly straightforward and simple structure. Eight bars of melody, maybe a secondary melody, perhaps a bridge and then back to the initial melody. Often there's a repeatable "hook" that's easy to remember and catchy and repeated, sometimes a few times too many. Even "art" songs are fairly simple in structure even if their melodies may not be the kind you start humming the first time you hear them. But the structure even of a simple opera overture is much more complex, and a symphony more complex still. Sonata structure? Theme and variations? Surprising detours? Discourse and argument? It's there if you want to analyze it. So the "serious" music not only gladdens the heart but if you want to delve into it more deeply it can challenge the intellect. The best music reveals different facets when different artists, using the exact same notes, interpret it differently.

There's a danger of over-intellectualizing music and taking much of the joy out of it in the process. Here's a piece that comes close but to my mind doesn't cross the line. Andrew Waggoner is a composer who teaches at Syracuse and whose music has been performed by orchestras in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Denver and the Czech Republic. He has a notion that at some level he should be celebrating the proliferation of music but worries that we are forgetting the value of silence. "When music is everywhere, it is nowhere; when everything is music, nothing is." So he celebrates silence in Webern, for example, arguing that his music uses silence so effectively that: "This form-giving potentiality of silence, that is to say, the active memory of silence as an agent in the musical discourse, is so important in Webern's music as to be generalized as a basic principle." He goes on:

"For us to be able to enter the world that music creates for us, we need a silence within which to listen." He also laments the decline of music as a shared experience. Recording is wonderful and makes available a variety of music that the richest aristocrat 200 years ago could never have had access to, but when we isolate ourselves with headphones we lose some of the magic.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Israeli attack a disinformation operation?

The Israeli bombing of a site in Syria is still more than a little mysterious, and all the governments involved (including the U.S.) are working -- with different motives -- to keep it mysterious. Here's a piece by former CIA officer Philip Giraldi that presents the best case I've seen that it had the nature of a disinformation operation by Israel -- done to create the impression that Syria had a nuclear enrichment program provided by or in cooperation with North Korea, or the beginnings of one, even though "North Korea isn't known to have ever exported nuclear technology or material. The prevailing consensus is that Syria doesn't have the economic or technical base that would enable it to develop a nuclear weapon even if someone handed it the fissile material." There's also the question of whether what North Korea exploded was really a battlefield-ready nuke or a primitive thing that only worked partially. Plus, as Giraldi points out, no evidence of radioactive material has been found in the wake of the strike.


FEMA reform not really tested yet

If the tone of this Register editorial sounds like some stuff that's appeared previously on this blog, perhaps that's not a coincidence. For President Bush's visit, we thought we would acknowledge that so far the feds don't seem as incompetent as they seemed after Katrina. This is hardly surprising. This is the biggest disaster since then and they're going to be on their toes. But for various reason, this is not a good comparison to Katrina. State and local governments have experience with fires, and there hasn't been a problem with volunteers and other helpers getting access to evacuees. FEMA might do fine, but the real test will come as they handle those who are homeless for whatever period until houses are rebuilt or they decide to move elsewhere.

Feds stymie firefighting progress

You didn't think the Register could get through more than two days of editorializing on fire-related topics without finding some reason to complain about the government, did you? Of course not!

This one really is pretty egregious. A company converted an old DC-10 by putting a tank on the bottom that can release 10 times as much fire retardant or water as a helicopter and four times as much as one of those converted C-130s. But the Forest Service hasn't approved it for use on federal lands, so only one has been built. Fortunately Gov. Schwarzenegger (after a period of testing) put it on contract for use in California, and it's been doing yeoman work near Arrowhead. But with the feds dragging their feet (Rep. Dana Rohrabacher told me it's driven in part by current contractors who don't want competition) only one has been built.

Perhaps worse: the Russians built a whole fleet of special firefighting planes with large capacities, but the U.S. won't let them operate in the U.S.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Israel bombing of Syria still mysterious

Well, photographs apparently taken before Israel bombed a target inside Syria have surfaced, and while they might point to the likelihood that Syria was building something like a nuclear enrichment facility similar in design to North Korea's, the evidence is not quite conclusive. Seems the Syrians put the roof on early, so aerial photos can't see what went inside. Suspicious, but not quite conclusive.

Here are three rather different takes on the incident. Joshua Muravchik of AEI thinks -- hopes -- that the incident will give new life to Bush's preemption (really prevention, which has generally been viewed as forbidden under international law) doctrine. He was on "Hardball" the other night arguing for a preventive strike against Iran. I've talked to Josh a number of times, I like him, and he's better-informed than most neocons. But a preventive-strike dopctrine is a formula for endless war.

Daniel Byman, in Slate, thinks the incident shows Syria's Bashar Assad is something of a gambler in international relations, unlike his predecessor father, who was cruel but cautious, and this doesn't bode well for anything resembling peace in the region. Ha'aretz's Shmuel Rosner thinks it shows a huge intelligence gap.

Surveillance started before 9/11

I didn't get a chance to mention this before I went to Indianapolis, but it still seems important and not widely enough recognized. It has come out, due to information filed and finally unsealed in an insider-trading case involving Joseph Nacchio, former head of Qwest Communications, that the administration asked for customer information from Qwest that Qwest lawyers considered illegal in February 2001, long before anybody but a few specialists had heard of Osama bin Laden or considered al-Qaida a threat. Qwest didn't comply, and believes it was frozen out of government contracts as retaliation. But other phone companies apparently did comply. According to former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's book and former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke's book, the administration might have been hearing about Islamist terrorism then, but it wasn't paying much attention.

What this suggests strongly is that even before it had the justification of the 9/11 attacks, the administration was at least aggressively expanding executive-branch power to do surveillance, probably on Americans, though there's still a lot that's classified about this whole affair. That would be consistent with Dick Cheney's decades-long campaign, ever since Watergate, of restoring the kind of arbitrary powers to the presidency he thought were unjustifiably curbed after Watergate.

This is not Katrina

I wasn't going to say anything else about the fires, but the prevalence of comparisons to Katrina has me mildly annoyed. It is certainly understandable, in light of the damage Katrina caused the administration (not as much as it caused to residents of the 9th Ward, of course, but still), that Bush and everybody associated with the administration would go overboard to show how concerned and competent FEMA and the rest of the feds are, and so they have. This was the biggest disaster since Katrina, so you knew they would make an extra effort. However, while I wouldn't be a bit surprised if FEMA has cleaned up its act -- a human response to Katrina --the Southern California fires do not and probably will not offer a close enough comparison to tell -- unless they really screw up the after-disaster administration and compensation aspects.

Take the stadium refugees. For starters, volunteers and officials could get to QualComm in San Diego without any trouble, whereas access in New Orleans was almost impossible. The San Diego people were evacuated from nice middle-class and upper-middle-class homes, most of them recently built except perhaps for some mountain homes. Most evacuees were able to handle a night or two away themselves, privately -- look at the difference between 300,000 homes evacuated and 15,000 people, 20,000 tops, at QualComm -- either with friends or in a hotel or motel. Although those in the stadium were uncertain and the fire was almost whimsical, leaving some houses standing and some destroyed in the same neighborhood, they had to know, what with 2,000 structures burned and 300,000 evacuated, that the odds were their house was not destroyed. Most probably had insurance -- it's almost impossible to get or keep a mortgage without it. So there wasn't the desperation or sense of being abandoned so many in New Orleans felt.

Second, while this was the most intense concentration of multiple fires all over the map in a few days that anybody can remember, wildfires are an annual occurence in California and state and local officials have some experience handling them. These stretched resources awfully thin, and there were probably mistakes made, but overall they did what they could. The heat and sometimes 100-mph winds made it inevitable that it would be almost impossible to get them under control until the weather changed, but everybody knew that. Setting up shelters, finding food and water, mobilizing trucks, planes and firefighters -- they know how to do that. The need for federal help was significant but not vital. New Orleans has had floods before, but nothing approaching the magnitude of what followed the levee breaks, and state and local government in Louisiana are traditionally incompetent and corrupt to a degree almost impossible to match anywhere in California.

Bottom line: FEMA and other federal agencies have probably improved, and will stay better until they get complacent again, as almost all government bureaucracies eventually do. But we won't be able to tell as much as we might like from this disaster.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Another Mubarak in Egypt

This is a sad story, even though it might presage some market-oriented reform in Egypt, which would be welcome if it happens. But the apparent assumption in Egypt that Gamal Mubarak, son of Hosni, 79, will automatically become president of Egypt when the old man kicks off is strong and sad. Egypt has what are laughingly called elections, but the real opposition isn't allowed on the ballot and the conclusion is ordained. To me the idea that sons should succeed fathers as rulers -- see Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Saddam's sons obviously being groomed strikes me as simply bizarre. There must be a strong monarchist gene deep within the human DNA. Too bad. Rule by anybody is bad enough, but the idea that power should be concentrated in a single family more often leads to misrule than enlightened rule (though a quasi-decent ruler occasionally emerges). Can Americans, who seem poised to make Bush-Clinton-Clinton-Bush-Bush-Clinton residents of the White House really feel superior?

On Israel, Turkey, Surveillance, Iranian prisoner

I might as well get all the Register editorials I think might be of interest handled in one post. We critiqued Condie Rice's efforts on Israel/Palestine, noting that accords happen when the parties are ready for them, not when the U.S. thinks it's time. We highlighted just how dangerous the border situation between Iraq and Turkey is, what with the PKK guerrillas crossing over to kill Turks. We remarked on the fact that the Bushies went for unwarranted surveillance before 9/11, suggesting it's more about grabbing power than protecting Americans. And I interviewed Ali Shakeri of Irvine, the Iranian-American who was imprisoned by the Iranian regime for 140+ days, 118 in solitary confinement. He's a remarkable man -- amazingly not embittered and more dedicated to peace and dialogue than before.

Register on fires

Here's a link to the Register's front page, which is constantly updating the Santiago/Modjeska fire, at around 19,000+ acres now and 12 structures burned. Modest structure losses by comparison to San Diego or Lake Arrowhead, but I think the Orange fire chief is right that OC didn't have access to planes in a timely fashion, so it could have been less destructive. Here's a link to the Register's editorial today, noting that it is believed to have been arson.

Southern California Inferno

I'm a Southern California native who has spent only eight years of my life living elsewhere, so obviously I have seen plenty of wildfires. It was probably 15 years ago, maybe more, that I came as close as I ever want to be to being in Hell. We live on the Ortega Highway side of Lake Elsinore, on the hillside, with two houses -- three in one direction -- between us and the brush -- the chapparal. There are two switchbacks of the Ortega Highway almost directly above our house, and there was a fire in the hills above.

All of a sudden it reared up on the upperside of the ridge, flames must have been 50 feet high. We didn't think it would jump the highway, but it did, twice, and roared down to our house (wife and son had already left with photos and documents). There were firefighters in the yards right next to the brush and they managed to stop it before it consumed any houses. All the neighbors were out with garden hoses wetting down trees, bushes and roofs; it probably helped a little, but without the firefighters and their equuipment I suspect we would have been doomed. We've had a few fires in the vicinity since then, but nothing that close.

The current fires are the worst I can remember, especially in that there are so many springing up in just a day or two, with the Santa Ana "devil winds" making fighting them almost impossible. They haven't been closer than about 20 miles from our house this year, so we feel reasonably safe, watching them and writing about them for the paper, smelling the acrid smell of the smoke every time we go outside, whether in Lake Elsinore, Corona or Santa Ana, but otherwise not feeling personally threatened.

We had only about 3 inches of rain this last winter, so conditions were perfect. And these are the fiercest Santa Ana winds -- hot winds off the desert -- I can remember, with gusts over 100 mph and uinrelenting for two days -- more in some areas, though they died down a little today. Our outside room, even though it's mostly closed in, has a thick layer of dust and ash on everything, and the bottom of our pool has never been so dirty. Our front porch and front patio had a layer of dust on everything. The Santa Anas are supposed to die down, to be replaced by a gentle coastal breeze going the other direction. That may be the best hope of the things finally burning out. There's a slight chance of rain on the weekend, but I wouldn't count on it. We'll have to spend Saturday cleaning the outside room and the yard. What a mess, but compared to so many people we are extremely fortunate.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Bhutto determined after asassination attempt

Well, Benazir Bhutto's return to Pakistan was eventful enough, what with a suicide bombing that might well have killed her if she hadn't been tired and ducked down into the truck carrying her. Unfortunately, the Islamist rebels (some al-Qaida, some Taliban, some homegrown) are armed, dangerous and determined. Pakistan has been described as the most ungovernable country in the world, and it may have become even less governable.

Armenian resolution incredibly ill-timed

I had a long talk last night with Peter Mentzel, our discussion leader here at the Liberty Fund colloquium. He teaches history at Utah State University, specializing in the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans. He told me he was at a conference last year in Turkey at which younger Turkish historians (almost all of whom acknowledge that the slaughter of Armenians in 1915 amounted to a genocide) tiptoed to the edge of public acknowledgment. But they still meet considerable resistance from older historians and officials, for the reason that many of the Young Turks who helped make the Ataturk secularist revolution that displaced the Ottomans were officers in 1915 and share some of the guilt. But Peter thought public acknowledgment by Turkey could (have) come in a few years. It has been a gradual, careful, years-long effort.

The Armenian genocide resolution in a House committee last week, however, torpedoed that effort, and made most Turks incredibly angry at the U.S. With tensions rising along the Iraq-Turkey border due to PKK raids across the border into Turkey, and pressure developing for the U.S. to get involved against a NATO ally that has been the most pro-Western country in the Middle East and a reliable U.S. ally, this was amazingly poor timing. The Bush administration deserves a great deal of the blame; the Iraqi invasion destabilized the region and strengthened Iran, and the administration has done much else to alienate Turkey. But for the resolution we can thank Nancy Pelosi.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Medical marijuana not a law enforcement problem in Vermont

I'm happy to see a top law enforcement official in Vermont acknowledge that after three years the state has simply not experienced the law enforcement problems with medical maarijuana that cops said they anticipaated. Still, the story about this acknowledgment contains a few myths. It is simply not the case in California that there's a lot of doctors handing out phony recommendations. One of the biggest problems is that most doctors still won't even talk about medical marijuana with their patients (which might not be entirely bad because most know nothing, or believe things that aren't true), so patients tend to flock to the few who will. Viewed from a certain perspective, that can make those few look like "Dr. Feelgoods" who simply hand out recommendations like caandy. There may be a few of those, but they are rare.

For casual users, the street is still a better alternative than dispensaries. Dispensaary prices tend to be higher than street prices, largely because the standards are higher. Maybe a phony recommendation and a dispensary work for a few rich people, but hardly any of the dispensary customes I've run into -- and my experiences mean I've run into quite a few -- hardly fit that description. The struggle for safe access continues.

Bhutto back in Pakistan

What struck me watching CNN's coverage of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's return to Pakistan was the air of what almost amounted to hero worship. She may turn out to be an effective counterweight to the Islamic militants who are making so much trouble lately, and perhaps to the more dictatorial impulses of President Musharraf, but she's not quite a secular saviour. The corruption charges against her when she left eight years ago, involving millions of dollars and Swiss bank accounts and all were pretty serious and fairly well documented. Considering that Pakistan has nukes it's prudent to wish her well, but really!

Here in Indianapolis

I'm in Indianaapolis, at a conference of "War, Liberty and the Free Press," put on by the Liberty Fund. As I'm discovering, these sesssions are preceded by a lot of reading, in this case from David Hume and John Stuart Mill to Ted Carpenter. The first few seesssions have been interesting and lively, covering questions like what kinds of controls are justifiable during wartime. Should reporters become cheerleaders or try to maintain some distance and objectivity? Beyond avoiding news about troop movements that could inform the enemy and put troops in danger, are other controls justifiable? Do controls enacted during wartime set precedents for or carry over into peacetime? How are things different in a conflict that is not a declared war with a forseeable end?

Good people heere, including some I have known only as voices on the phone and am pleased to get to know a little better: Ivan Eland, Charles Pena, John Fund, Ted Carpenter, Doug Bandow, Andrea Millen Rich, John Hulsman, Lawrence Kaplan. Peter Mentzel of Utah State University is doing a good job as discussion leader.

Naturally, I'm maintaining the position that in wartime, when things really are a matter of life and death, it is all the more important for the press to be free.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Neocons join Giuliani campaign

As if there weren't enough reasons to be fearful of Rudy ("freedom is authority") Giuliani as a potential president, this Newsweek story offers yet another. Seems all the neocons that dragged (or helped to drag) the country into the Iraq war and now lust after military action against Iran are flocking to the Giuliani campaign. The godfather, Norman Podhoretz, who recently wrote a lengthy article praying the Bushlet would attack Iran, is there, of course. But there's also Martin Kramer, Stephen Rosen of Harvard (close to Bill Kristol), Bob Kasten, Daniel Pipes.

In Podhoretz's words: "because his view of the war -- what I call World War IV -- is very close to my own. And also because he has the qualities of a wartime leader, including a fighting spirit and a determination to win." Interesting that Dimitri Simes of the Nison Center (!) is critical: "Their foreign-policy manifesto seems to be 'We're right, we're powerful, and just make my day.' He's out-Bushing Bush."

Like Bush, of course, Giuliani has zero -- zero -- foreign policy experience. He kept his head as mayor after 9/11 and attended a lot of funerals, held a lot of hands. That's it. That's all there is. Well, there's self-righteous bellicosity too, of course.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Court decision on immigration enforcement wise

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on federal Judge Charles Breyer's decision to halt the proposed "no-match" immigration enforcement program that would have required companies to fire workers 90 days after being notified that an employees' Social Security card didn't match government records. Judge Breyer noted that the SocialmSecurity Administration has admitted that its records contain millions of errors, and ruled that innocent workers would get caught up in the program, and that it would be extremely disruptive to businesses -- as it was no doubt intended to be. The administration, I believe, purposely chose a potentially disruptive enforcement mechanism in the hope that the massive disruption of the economy would get more votes for the "comprehensive" immigration reform that failed so decisively earlier this year. The judge ruled on fairly narrow grounds, however -- that the government didn't follow the rules in changing its enforcement program and didn't do a required study of the impact on small businesses, as federal law requires.

I would go further and suggest that the government has no right to tell a private company who it can hire and fire, for just about any reason.

If you scroll down and check the comments, you'll see our readers were not exactly enchanted with our position.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Military under Pressure

Here's a link to the Register's editorial today on the pressure the military is under due mainly to the war in Iraq. The Pentagon is having to pay bonuses of up to $35,000 to retain Captain-level officers and the Marines want out of Iraq. Meanwhile SecDef Robert Gates wants to completely reconfigure the Army in the midst of a war -- even if he had time enough left in office to begin the job. The military is still among the most respected organizations in American society, but it's in serious trouble.

By the way, I would have more respect for retired Gen. Ricardo Sanchez's criticism of the way the politicoes have conducted the war if he had resigned and gone public when he was one of the top U.S. generals in Iraq. That would have had much more impact than yet another retired general criticizing the war. All too many military people with concerns stay quiet until they're safely retired and living on their healthy pensions.

Victory over al-Qaida?

American military comnmanders are ready to say they have "fatally wounded" al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) during recent battles. Now they're debating whether to crow about it, since it has a history of being adaptable and rising again. There's been some apparent success in Anbar, although William Lind isn't so sure. But the real point is that al-Qaida was always a sideshow in the bigger picture of trying to get Iraq stabilized (assuming that's the real mission). It was a tiny band led by foreign fighters, which made it easy to dislike, and it has tried to exacerbate sectarian tension and hatred, but that tension would be there without al-Qaida, and the Iraqi government has made almost no political progress -- except, perhaps in uniting over the demand that Blackwater USA be kicked out of the country.

Legacy of interventionism

Here's a good piece by Jacob Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation on the history and sad legacy of decades of U.S. interventionism. He makes the important point that much of the opposition to World War II before Pearl Harbor was the memory of what was for a short time called, the Great War, until a greater one came along and got itself labeled the "good war."

I think I am persuaded by Sir Eldon Griffiths' book on Iran that the U.S. didn't actually have as much to do with the deposing of the elected government of Iran and the installation of the shah in 1953 as both CIA and anti-CIA advocates believe. The U.S. was meddling against the government, to be sure, but other forces were in play; it could be the CIA backed what turned out to be the winning side and took more credit than was due for the outcome, to make itself look more effectual than it really was. But maybe it doesn't matter that much. Most everybody, especially in the Middle East, now believes the CIA did it, and it's one more reason to be resentful.

Who lost Turkey?

Now we're getting articles with titles like that, this one from Juan Cole at the University of Michigan. Juan teaches Middle Eastern history and reminds us that Turkey has been a solid American ally since World War II, and was a NATO ally during the Cold War. About 70 prrcent of U.S. supplies for the military people in northern portions of Iraq go through Turkey, mainly the Incirlik air base. And while Turkey has hardly been kind to the Kurds in the country, the establishment of a de facto independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq -- up to now the most stable and hopeful part of the country, has complicated life for the Turkish government, what with cross-border raids by the anti-Turk PKK; the Kurdish rebellion had been fairly quiescent.

On Sunday Kurdish guerrillas killed 13 Turkish troops. There are rumors (and more) the Turks are launching long-range artillery at suspected PKK sites in northern Iraq. And a committee in the House just labeled the mass murder of Armenians a "genocide." A Turkish cross-border incursion with men and equipment would likely destabilize northern Iraq further. Now after dissing Turkey for years, the Bush administration is pleading for restraint.

These troubles with Turkey are yet another unanticipated consequence ("blowback," if you will) of stirring the pot in the Middle East by invading Iraq. Making Iran more influential and powerful and losing a long-time ally. Good work!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Will the rule of law prevail in Peru?

Here's an interesting piece by Alvaro Vargas-Llosa, hoping that Peru will handle Alberto Fujimori, the former Peruvian president who resigned and fled amid charges of heavy-duty corruption and brutal abuse of power in 2000, intelligently and fairly. He was recently extradited to Lima to stand trial for a couple a massacres by a military death squad. Fujimori was certainly a terrible president, far more brutal than most people expected. But there are two extremes to be avoided that some Peruvians apparently indulge in: rationalizing Fujimoris' misdeeds by remembering the difficulties creating by the Marxist Shining Path movement, or useing the trial for revenge instead of justice.

Alvaro, of course, is the son of the great Peruvian novelist, political thinker and onetime presidential candidate Mario Vargas-Llosa. Peru might have been better off if he had been elected -- or maybe actually holding political office would have left him even more cynical. I met Alvaro some years ago at an undisclosed location (it was apparently prudent then that certain people didn't know where he was), and was favorably impressed with his intelligence and understanding of the importance of liberty. He's openly living in D.C. now and I'm glad to see him contributing to the political discourse.

A censorious time

Events of the last few weeks have me thinking about just how aggressively censorious various sides of the political system can be.'s "General Betray-Us" ad was sophomoric and the headline somebody there should have known would be viewed more as tasteless than clever completely distracted attention from some of the substance in the ad. Yet Republicans (Huckabee: "a new low watermark [???] in American discourse") jumped on it as if it were an attempted assassination, and got Democrats like Hillary Clinton ("I don't condone attacks on any American who has served our country honorably and with dedication . . .") to jump on the bandwagon. A resolution condemning the ad passed the Senate.

Not to be outdone, the Democrats jumped all over Rush Limbaugh for apparently referring to antiwar members of the military as "phony soldiers." I happen to think he was using the term generically, letting his id rule his mouth and condemning, from his safe broadcaster's seat, all military people who had had second thoughts about the war -- probably cowards! But he had somewhat plausible explanation -- that he was thinking of a particular former Navy guy who had been featured in antiwar ads but whose combat experience and entire military career (he washed out before finishing boot camp) were made up. Network news had done features on the guy and Rush had mentioned him the previous day, so maybe . . .

Given a long history of political nastiness, both these "outrages" were pretty mild stuff, worth criticizing or lampooning perhaps, but hardly stuff to get apoplepectic about. Yet members of Congress were ready to pass resolutions. When they're elected, they're not just independent critics, they are arms of the State, an institution that could engage in censorship, is constantly tempted to do so and sometimes does.

I suspect it's because both sides feel so righteous and put-upon (almost a requirement for being in the political class) that it's not hard to slip into the attitude that opponents should not just be criticized and discredited, it wouldn't be a bad thing at all if they were silenced. True, congresscritters have freedom of speech too. But they might do well to think twice before crawling up to the edge of outright censorship. And maybe the rest of us could afford to lighten up a little.

World Series run-up might be worthwhile

Here's a nice column by WaPo's Thomas Boswell suggesting that the league championship series and maybe even the World Series might be worth watching after all -- even if George Steinbrenner upstages the series by announcing his plans regarding Joe Torre.

It's not what most people expected, which might make it more interesting. The Diamondbacks, Rockies and Indians are three of the cheapest teams in baseball, payroll-wise, and they rely a lot on rookies and young players. But it could be interesting to watch Troy Tulowitzki, Ubaldo Jimenez, Fausto Carmona, Chris Young, Asdrubal Cabrera and some of the others to see which ones emerge as post-season stars. They may all be household names in a few years.

The Rockies clobbered the D-Backs 5-1 in the first NLCS game.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Eye on the Empire

Here's a link to the "Eye on theEmpire" blog I do for the Register. Commented today on Musharraf, developments in Burma, and how the Israeli airstrike on Syria (still denied by some in Syria) may be dividing the administration.

Repub debate not helpful

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the Republican economic "debate" held on Tuesday. I had to watch the darn thing from beginning to end. Ron Paul got too few chances to speak, but I was impressed with his discussion of sound money. Thompson started slowly and picked up confidence but was not especially impressive, letting Romney and Giuliani, two blokes with moderate records trying to out-conservative one another, dominate the affair with talk of a line-item veto (yawn). Still, if voters are in a mood for a calming leader, one who just might have a chance to reach across the aisle now and then, he might have a chance. But I'm not sure how many voters actually want that in a president, and it's possible those who do will go for Hillary.

We were appalled at the number of candidates who have abandoned free trade, despite most of the majors offering at least rhetorical obeisance. With the Democrats almost uniformly skeptical, I fear moves toward more freedom of trade are in for a rough patch, and there could be some backsliding toward more protectionism. It's still a mystery to me that free trade, which sober analysis demonstrates is beneficial to almost everyone involved (though short-term dislocations and "creative destruction" in the direction of efficiency and lower costs do occur) is so easy to demagogue against in the political arena. Can anybody come up with a way to make it emotionally as well as intellectually compelling?

Critical time for Pakistan

My friend Muazzam Gill, an international affairs analyst for UPI, didn't have much doubt when I talked to him. The crash of a Pakistani army helicopter escorting Pres. Pervez Musharraf on a tour of earthquake reconstruction in the Kashmir is most unlikely to have been an accident. Muazzam thinks it wasn't an assassination attempt on Musharraf this time, but a broad signal from some of his many enemies: you are in our sights and we are this close to you. Expect maintenance workers to be investigated.

Musharraf, of course, has been focused more on finding a way to get another term as president than on what else is going on in his country. Because he came in via a coup and has continued to be the head of the military throughout his tenure, he has still not made the effective alliances among Pakistan's political class he would have had if he had come up through the political end of things. That seems to be one of the reasons he is so eager to have former prime minister Benazir Bhutto return and be involved in government as prime minister. He apparently had to turn Nawaz Sharif, the other former prime minister who tried to return, away. Bhutto and Sharif are fierce rivals, and he had cast his lot with Bhutto.

Another result of the focus on succession is that little attention has been paid or leadership exercised in the struggle with the various militants, al-Qaida cells, tribal factions and other malcontents in the Federally Administered Tribal Regions and North West Provinces, along the Afghan border, where the writ of the central government has never run. Since July more than 250 of the security forces have been killed in fighting, with 45 killed in a several-day running battle this week. Government troops have been reactive rather than offensive, just holding on. That's partly because even without political turmoil, the government doesn't really know what it wants to do with those territories. The U.S. wants them to go after the Qaida/Taliban camps, but Pakistani public opinion seems to favor trying to find some kind of workable truce.

If, as and when Musharraf gets his second term in a way that confers a semblance of legitimacy, his troubles may have just begun.

More on Marin Alsop

Here's another story, this time from the WaPo, on Marin Alsop, the new music director/conductor with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. It is based on a rehearsal rather than being a concert review, which offers different insights. I've been in bands and choirs most of my life, and while performing is the best, it becomes the best through rehearsal; individual players or singers may have the notes down pat, but you need to go through it a number of times before there's a sense of playing or singing together. People make subtle adjustments to one another, often unconsciously, in the interest of the ensemble sound.

I may have to get one of the orchestra's CDs to judge for myself as to musicianship. But what interests me in what I read about Marin Alsop is not so much the fact that she is a woman (though that's why she gets the ink) but that she seems to have a vision for making classical music more vital in her city that seems to have had initial success (more subscription tickets sold, an air of excitement) and just might work longer-term. My passion is still the classics, stuff at least 50 years old, but I try to listen to more modern music and give it a chance because I suspect that without living composers the music could easily die out -- preserved on CDs or whatever the next medium is, but not perhaps avidly performed -- and that would be a great loss of one of many factors that give a society the opportunity to become civilized, as well as a possible loss of a source of immense responsible pleasure. I hope the music doesn't die or become a mere relic.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Burmese realities

Here's a link to the editorial the Register ran last week on the sad denouement of the Burmese democracy movement. I think it outlines the realities of the situation fairly well. Countries with little or no economic interaction have little capacity to impose economic sanctions that actually sting -- not that such sanctions are often effective anyway. Since the regime seemed immune to the "whole world is watching" syndrome, there was little reason for it not to crack down decisively. There may be better times in the future, but things look grim for now.

Immigration realities

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the recent spate of immigration raids. Our perspective is somewhat different than what most conventional thinkers would suggest. Money quote:

"It will probably be a long time, if ever, before a consensus emerges around our editorial position, that the quotas for immigrants are too low, and the best approach would be to allow anybody who wants to come to immigrate (except terrorists and those with infectious diseases), but making it clear that they are not eligible for any government benefits until they have lived, worked and paid taxes here for a reasonable period of time.
"But we keep hoping."

Making Blackwater accountable

The Register site seems to be functioning fairly well now, so here's the Register's editorial, which ran Sunday, on the Blackwater imbroglio. The editorial didn't say so, but I think it's just possible that the Iraqi government's demand that Blackwater be kicked out of the country could be the beginning of an Iraqi government that can start with things all agree on and maybe get in the habit of agreeing to the point of maybe eventually agreeing or compromising on some divisive things and become a real government. Probably wishful thinking. But an Iraqi government asserting independence from the U.S. can't be all bad.

I'm just about done with the "Blackwater" book, and it does look as if the company has a fair amount to answer for, though it may not be the complete villain some would have it be. And I'm not sure the idea of outsourcing some military-type activity to the private sector is inherently a bad idea.

However, Justin Raimondo using quote marks around the word "private" in his piece on Blackwater reminded me of a factor I haven't yet written about. Government contractors can often do work better than government bureaucracies at a lower cost. But most of them are not truly private in character in that their only customers are governments.

Governments may have spending limits based on political machinations and the amount of taxes they can extract from people without causing a massive tax revolt. But they don't face the ultimate test private companies face -- the necessity to make a profit or, eventually, if the condition persists, go out of business. Since almost no government program ever dies or is eliminated without a titanic struggle, no matter how irrelevant, anachronistic or insignificant it is, there's going to be money floating around, if not as much as some special interests would prefer. The "market" for government contractors is hardly consumer-choice-driven.

Outsourcing some of those functions to "private" contractors might reduce inefficiency, but if it's something the government shouldn't be doing -- like fighting the misbegotten war in Iraq -- that's being outsourced, then we're just getting slightly less waste of tax money. And in the case of contractors in Iraq, since outsourcing military and military-related endeavors on the current scale is a recent phenomenon and so many of the contracts are no-bid contracts, it's certain that acceptable contracting standards that involve a modicum of real accountability, which almost invariably evolve by trial-and-error, have not yet been developed. So it's by no means certain that we're saving money by outsourcing so much to "private" contractors.

Law of the Sea

Here's the Register's editorial on the Law of the Sea Treaty, which is raising its ugly head again, what with el presidente urging the Senate to ratify it and the Senate having a Democratic majority that just might be inclined to do so. The headline captures it pretty well, I think: "Law of the Sea: Drown It."

Ron Paul no isolationist

In this Manchester Union-Leader article Ron Paul argues that a non-interventionist foreign policy is not isolationism at all and explains why fairly well. Money quotes:

“A non-interventionist foreign policy is not an isolationist foreign policy. It is quite the opposite. Under a Paul administration, the United States would trade freely with any nation that seeks to engage with us. American citizens would be encouraged to visit other countries and interact with other peoples rather than be told by their own government that certain countries are off limits to them.”
“It is not we non-interventionists who are isolationsists. The real isolationists are those who impose sanctions and embargoes on countries and peoples across the globe because they disagree with the internal and foreign policies of their leaders. The real isolationists are those who choose to use force overseas to promote democracy, rather than seek change through diplomacy, engagement, and by setting a positive example.
“I do not believe that ideas have an expiration date, or that their value can be gauged by their novelty. The test for new and old is that of wisdom and experience, or as the editors wrote “historical reality,” which argues passionately now against the course of anti-Constitutional interventionism.
“A Paul administration would see Americans engaged overseas like never before, in business and cultural activities. But a Paul administration would never attempt to export democracy or other values at the barrel of a gun, as we have seen over and over again that this is a counterproductive approach that actually leads the United States to be resented and more isolated in the world.”

Monday, October 08, 2007

Waiting . . . then Blackwater

I don't know whether it's the Register Web site or something with my connection, but I can't get it to display a few more things I want to link to. We'll wait a while.

Meanwhile, the fact that the Iraqi government is still insisting on kicking Blackwater out of the country and having the Blackwater contractors (all right, mercenaries, but there's not necessarily anything wrong with that) be turned over to the Iraqi government for prosecution suggests that hatred of Blackwater is perhaps the only thing that can unite Iraqis. Maybe that's not so bad. I don't know if this is a major turning-point in the war, presaging an Iraqi government ann0ouncement that it wants U.S. troops out by a date certain and the U.S., not really respecting "sovereignty" because it really wants to attack Iran, as Justin Raimondo has suggested. But it's a sign that the widespread Iraqi discontent with the U.S. occupation, of which Blackwater is only the most recent symbol, is starting to find expression in the Iraqi government. Let's hope the U.S.government can recognize it as a good development, but I fear it won't.

Sadness in Burma

Here's a link to the piece I did last week for on the sad situation in Burma/Myanmar. Unfortunately my hunch that things might turn out badly was correct. I guess I didn't reckon with just how happy the Burmese military is to have the country so isolated from the rest of the world in terms of economic and political relations, so it doesn't have to care a whit what the rest of the world thinks -- including China, which seems to have much less influence on Myanmar than most commentators thought or hoped.

The Ron Paul Phenomenon

Here's a link to the piece I did for the Register's Sunday Commentary section, on the surprisingly (to conventional political thinkers) successful campaign Ron Paul is running, especially in terms of money raised -- $5.08 million the third quarter, about the same as McCain except McCain has millions in debt, and $4 million more than Huckabee -- and enthusiastic grassroots support.

I don't know if the campaign linked to it, but Lew at did, and I got nice e-mails from all over the country. Here's a place to acknowledge something I didn't have room for and that a couple of e-mailers reminded me of -- that Ron Paul has possibly surprising appeal to life-long Democrats.

The main criticism I got from Paul supporters was for the subhead, with the "not likely to be president" phrase. I know I promised on this blog not to make such prognostications, and in fact it was a headline writer rather than I who did that. Ah, well.

Anyway, more nice e-mails and phone calls than I've had in response to a Register piece in a long time. Thanks, Ron Paul supporters and friends!

Sad sports weekend

Well, at least the Chargers won. But for Southern California sports fans it was a pretty dismal weekend -- probably more so for me than for many. I know it's absurd and atavistic, but I went to UCLA and played, w-a-a-a-y back when they had Freshman football, so I have an unnatural attachment. I was afraid things might be bad when Olson, our quarterback went down in the 1st quarter, second-string was already injured, so we had to go with a walk-on Freshman who had played maybe three snaps all year. Still, we shouldn't have lost to Notre Dame, and I was depressed (not clinically) all weekend.

The real shocker was USC losing to .... Stanford?????

And of course the Angels got swept in the first round of the playoffs by Boston. Of course.

No wonder I didn't have the heart to blog. That and the fact that we had something of a pool crisis that required a fair amount of attention and a trip to the pool supply store, plus other get-ready-for-autumn chores in the yard. And we still have to paint the shed next weekend.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Cubs Nation Dreams

Nice to see David Broder, WaPo's venerable dispenser of the informed version of the conventional wisdom, writing about something other than politics. Turns out he grew up in Chicago and is a Cubs fan and considers it something of a miracle that they made it into the playoffs. He says he doesn't expect another miracle. And it doesn't look as if he's going to get one.

As for me, I'm just hoping that my beloved, beleaguered Angels, who have a history of not doing that well in Fenway, find a way to regroup after the 4-0 drubbing they took, courtesy of Josh Beckett and Papi, on Wednesday, come tomorrow.

And that the Bruins whomp the tar out of Notre Dame on Saturday, of course.

Iraq buying Chinese arms

The most interesting news in this article is that the Iraqi government is buying $100 million worth of small-scale military equipment from China. U.S. officials are expressing alarm, but the stated reason -- that due to the apparent disappearance of 190,000 weapons given to the Iraqis by the U.S. it's questionable whether the government can keep such materiel secure rather than having it fall into the hands of militias or Kurds harrassing Turkey -- while it has some validity, can't be the most fundamental reason. The real shock is that the Iraqis are turning to China. Don't they know it's our geopolitical rival of the future? And who are these uppity Iraqis to be making such decisions anyway? It's easier to say you want the Iraqis to be independent and sovereign than to stand back and watch them act like an independent sovereign.

There's also stuff about the latest casualties and Blackwater developments.

Military leaders questioning Iraq war?

This analysis from the McClatchy Washington bureau, suggests that with the turnover in top military leaders -- including SecDef, Joint Chiefs chairman and most of the other top brass -- the Pentagon is led by people who see the Iraq war more as a problem to be worked through than a crusade. Perhaps the chief phenomenon encouraging such previously heretical thoughts is concern about military readiness. There's little question that the Iraq war is stretching the military thin and a draft doesn't seem to be in the cards. Could resources tied down in Iraq be put to better use in Afghanistan? Etc., etc.

Doesn't necessarily mean Bush will listen to his new top leaders and avoid the impulse to do something aggressive to Iran. But if he finds this group uncongenial, he doesn't really have a lot of time left to put others in their places -- and he might not be able to find qualified people who have been able to keep the Kool-Aid down.

Secretary of State speculation

I want to recommend a post from Daniel Drezner, whose blog I've been meaning to add to the blogroll for some time. Informed stuff mostly on foreign policy. Dan teaches at Tufts, the Fletcher School, formerly taught political science at Chicago. He was moderator at the seminar I attended last month, under Institute for Humane Studies and Liberty Fund auspices, on globalization and Free Trade, and struck me as bright, fair, and exceptionally well-informed. He's also written a book for the CFR that assesses the arguments for free trade and fair trade remarkably even-handedly, which I plan to review for the Register in a few weeks. Since book reviewing is not my main racket, I tend to review only books I can recommend, though sometimes with reservations.

The other kind of reviewing -- cleverly eviscerating a book by some writer with whom you disagree profoundly and don't respect to boot -- is usually more fun, and I've occasionally indulged in it. But since my schedule and other obligations allow me to review perhaps 20 books a year for the Register, it seems like a waste of the opportunity to use those occasions just to diss a book I don't like, and there must be 20 books a year published that are worth reading. Might do the other if I retire and do freelancing.

Anyway, Dan speculates, based on no inside information he says, as to whom the various candidates might nominate as Secretary of State and National Security Adviser. Don't know if he's right, but the thought process is interesting.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Iran war rumblings

Here's a link to Seymour Hersh's latest piece in the New Yorker, chronicling what he and his sources see as a shift in what are still ongoing plans to have some sort of military engagement with Iran before Bush leaves office. Cheney seems to be the main instigator.

Hersh thinks the possible mission has been scaled down, from a broad bombing attack on known nuclear and military facilities, to a "surgical strike" on Revolutionary Guards facilities in Tehran and elsewhere. Administration and military spokespeople have been laying the groundwork by claiming that Iranian forces are training insurgents in Iraq, so the attacks can be spun as defensive. The Senate went along with the idea of designating the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, and even with authorizing possible action against them (Hillary, what were you thinking?).

Hersh has been hyping the possibility of an attack on Iran for a long time. Thank goodness it hasn't happened yet. Hersh thinks the administration understands it hasn't sold the idea of Iran as an imminent nuclear danger, so it's shifting to a different rationale.

I still think the military is likely to talk the administration out of it. I'd like to think there's a high-ranking general with the intestinal fortitude to resign and go public over this issue if necessary, but most high-ranking generals got there through political and bureaucratic skills more than through being known to cherish fundamental American principles.

Tracking Ron Paul

I talked with Kent Snyder, Ron Paul's campaign manager, yesterday, for an article I'm doing for the Register's Sunday Commentary section (I'll link when it goes up there). Just today, the campaign announced that during the third quarter the Paul campaign had raised $5.08 million, which just might be enough for him to start getting some attention from the "mainstream" media. However, MSNBC managed to do a whole story on its latest poll (with the WSJ), which shows that Republican voters want somebody "different" from President Bush rather than "pretty much the same" by a 48-38 margin (previously it was 51-41 the other way) without so much as mentioning Ron Paul's name.

The money was bolstered by a last-week-of-the-quarter challenge from the campaign to supporters: please donate $500,000 in the next week so we can end the quarter with a money cushion. Supporters did that in three days, so the challenge was increased to $1 million. No problem. By September 30 supporters had sent in more than $1.2 million.

Here are some interesting statistics Kent Snyder gave me (as of Tuesday, probably higher today). RonPaul has 49,928 MeetUp group members in 771 cities and 22 countries (including one in the Green Zone in Baghdad). So far they've held 7,671 events.

As for YouTube, which wasn't a factor in previous campaigns but is this year, Ron has 29,489 subscribers and 4,339,507 views of videos in which he is featured. Barack has more views (11,197,523) but only 11,264 subscribers. Every other candidate has fewer, by pretty substantial margins. Giuliani, for example, has 2,467 subscribers and 655,000 views, Romney has 3,076 and 926,547, McCain has 1,631 and 483,174, while Hillary has 6,089 and 926,547.

Whatever happens electorally, the Paul campaign has become the largest pro-freedom mass movement in recent history, and it can't help but have a lasting impact.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Putin goes for the gusto

Is anybody surprised that Vladimir Putin is suggesting that maybe he'll become prime minister when his term runs out (he can't run for president again). The man is hardly anything other than a born authoritarian, but he would probably win in a reasonably fair election (though his minions will make sure it doesn't give serious opposition a chance if there's any question) and he thinks he's destined to return Russia to its rightful status as a Great Power. Speculation has been rife that whoever he designates as his successor will be his puppet anyway.

Burmese disappointment

London's Daily Mail, may be doing the most extensive reporting, with lots of photos, I've seen on Burma. Its reports also suggest the ways even newspaper reporting is changing. In a country closed by the government to most reporters, there's reliance on Web sites, bloggers, text messages, e-mails from participants and the like -- with an open invitation to anybody who has reports, photos or video to send them along.

Anyway, UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari met Myanmar's head general, Than Shwe, today. There's talk that the regime might meet with house-arrested democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyii, but who knows? The bottom line is that for now the government is still in charge and has maintained its power in a pretty decisive and brutal way. I can't help but thinking there's hope for the future -- Than Shwe is sickly and 74 and when he goes there may be a window of opportunity, or one might come along sooner. We've been reminded of reality; a country cut off from the rest of the world economically is not going to be hurt by economic sanctions, and the West really had almost no leverage beyond news coverage.

Blackwater: murky waters

Erik Prince, chairman of Blackwater, the private security firm accused of killing some innocent Iraqis and being responsible for more shootings and killings than the other two security firms operating in Iraq put together, defended his company before Rep. Henry Waxman's committee today. I'm not ready to pass judgment yet, although it does appear that there's a lot of cronyism in the contracting game, whichhas always been the case and is endemic to government contracting-out in al most all areas.

I'm reading the book, "Blackwater," by Jeremy Scahill, but not far enough into it yet to form a solid judgment. It's published by the Nation and its jargon can be annoying -- every conservative intiative or outfit is "far right" or "extreme" -- but the reporting appears to be solid. I didn't know just how political Prince's family has been for generations, all on behalf of Republicans and the religious right (though the author defines it too broadly). They're close, and tied by marriage, to the DeVos family (Amway) in Michigan. I'll report more when I know more.

I'm not philosophically opposed to contracting-out services, even military services, to private companies, but it's more than possible that the process has been handled poorly. First, there's the fact that politics always plays a role in government contracting, so bang-for-the-buck sometimes takes a back seat. Second, these operations have been ramped up so quickly -- Blackwater was formed in 1997 and got its financial/operational adrenaline shot after 9/11 -- that there are bound to have been mistakes and miscalculations along the way.

The very concept of contracting-out -- begun in a big way with behind-the-lines services like mess halls, barracks management, supplies and the like when the military downsized modestly after the end of the Cold War -- is pretty new. I don't know if the inevitable pitfalls (and the fact that most private companies can outsmart a government procurement officer in a heartbeat) have been properly assessed, let alone corrected. Contracting-out should cost less than having government personnel perform the task in question, and I don't think that's been the case in Iraq. Perhaps hearings like these will help if they're not too partisan. But it would be better to mend it not end it. I think.

It would be even better, of course, not to get into misbegotten wars without thinking through the possible consequences and reverberations, and with fewer troops than needed to accomplish undefined but always growing and increasingly complicated tasks.

Sad Burmese Days

I was obviously too optimistic in my Sunday night post about Burma. I can't independently verify this report from the Daily Mail, but if it's close to true things are really dispiriting. Some people claim to have seen hundreds of bodies of dead monks thrown into the jungle, and perhaps thousands of civilians have been killed, according to this report. If so, it's on a scale with 1988. Perhaps the only bow to the "whole world is watching" syndrome might be the fact that the regime felt a need to conceal the bodies rtather than leave them on the street as a terrorist object lesson. Whether the carnage was on this scale or not -- other reports mention the possibility of hundreds dead -- it has obviously been severe.

The regime has given the cold shoulder to the UN envoy -- there's supposed to be a meeting today with the top general, presumably if his astrologer tells him it's OK. Perhaps the only hope is that the old scoundrel is 74 and said to be sickly.

Marin Alsop leads Baltimore Symphony

Here's a link to an obviously enthusiastic review of the opening concert of music director Marin Alsop's tenure as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. What I found inspiring was not so much that she's the first woman conductor of a major U.S. symphony, but what she is doing to reinvigorate the orchestra and the musical life of the city. She did Mahler and John Adams' "Fearful Symmetries," signaling that Baltimore orchestras will be hearing more pieces by living composers. I'm not all that big a fan of Adams generally, but I haven't heard this particular piece and the review made me interested in doing so.

Here's the neat stuff. When Ms. Alsop was appointed two years ago the orechestra was in debt and its concerts drew about 60 percent of capacity. She's won the confidence of the musicians and attracted money; a $1 million grant allows the orchestra to offer all tickets to subscribers at $25 (like Anthony Tommasini, "I am continually amazed at the impact a sum like $1 million, pocket change in popular culture, can have in classical music."). And the orchestra is recording again; a Sony Classical release of John Corigliano's "Red Violin" concerto with violinist Joshua Bell, "took the top spot on the Billboard classical chart in September."

Sounds like she's a good musician and a good leader.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Costs of prohibition

The Marijuana Policy Project is touting a study by social-science researcher Jon Gettman that estimates the total cost of marijuana prohibition at about $41.8 billion a year. The estimate includes not only the money spent directly on the drug war -- law enforcement, courts, incarceration, etc., but an estimated $31.1 billion in revenues the gvernment gives up by not taxing the marijuana business normally.

I've talked to Gettman on the phone, when I was researching my book, and he's certainly been trained (PhD in public policy and all that) for this kind of analysis and is plenty smart. I hope the study gets wide publicity. But if most people did rational cost/benefit analysis in their thinking about public policy, we would have ended the war on drugs decades ago. Not only is it expensive, almost all of its results are costs to society rather than benefits. I don't know if that's why it has to be propped up with lies and manufactured fears or if that's just the sloppy way some people approach policy and the kind of irrational politics the people are accustomed to and are willing to tolerate.

Focus on stopping Iran war

Have you ever noticed that the people who were utterly wrong about the war in Iraq during the build-up have not been drummed out of the pundit corps or even confronted from time to time on how they managed to get things so tragically wrong, but are still treated with respect and taken seriously? How Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes and Tom Friedman and a bunch of others can look at themselves in the mirror is beyond me.

Meanwhile, whose who got it right are still relegated to the margins of "respectability." One of those was Scott Ritter, the former Marine and former UN weapons inspector who kept warning against the war and predicting weapons of mass destruction would not be found. He may have other problems, but he was more right than almost anybody. Scott is worried about Iran now, convinced the Bushies really want to start a war, and he counsels the antiwar mopvement to focus there, especially since there's little chance of affecting the course of the war in Iraq until after the 2008 election.

Iranian/Israeli/US convoluted history

Just to put something behind the comments in my previous post about Iran, here's a link to Doug Bandow's excellent review of the new book, "Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S., by Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and a professor at Johns Hopkins. Relations between Iran and the U.S. and Iran abd Israel look pretty grim and confrontational right now, but that hasn't always been the case, Israel and Iran, as non-Arab countries in the Middle East, have more in common than one might think, and they have done all kinds of deals, not just during the time of the shah but after the coming of the ayatollahs. The U.S. has also established back channels to Iran in the recent past (think Iran-Contra, but there has been more) and there are reasons to work together.

Here's a paragraph from Mr. Parsi's book that will surprise many Americans. After the death of Saddam:

"The Iranians offered to end their support to Hamas and Islamic Jihad – Iran's ideological brethren in the struggle against the Jewish State – and pressure them to cease attacks on Israel. On Hezbollah, Iran's own brainchild and its most reliable partner in the Arab world, the clerics offered to support the disarmament of the Lebanese militia and transform it into a purely political party. On the nuclear issue, intrusive international inspections in order to alleviate any fears of Iranian weaponization. The Iranians would sign the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and they also offered extensive American involvement in the program as a further guarantee and goodwill gesture. On terrorism, Tehran offered full cooperation against all terrorist organizations – above all, al-Qaeda. On Iraq, Iran would work actively with the United states to support political stabilization and establishment of democratic institutions and – most importantly – a nonreligious government."

But the Bush administration, flush in the moment of apparent victory, seemed to think it could get costless regime change in Iran and rebuffed the offer. Never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Korean rapprochement

With the North Korean and South Korean leaders getting together, after an agreement for the North to give up its nuclear program by the end of the year -- a few details remain, but it seems as if all parties, including the U.S., are convinced it will hold -- it's difficult to see this as anything other than a success. I wonder if the Bush administration will stress it as such. I am sure John Bolton is disappointed that it got done without a war, and any number of neocon and conservative commentators will argue that the crafty North Koreans still can't be trusted and are sure to cheat. And it's worth keeping an eye on them, because besides being repressive it is a regime with not much of a record of honesty.

I suspect this agreement will hold, however, beacuse it seems to coincide with what most of the parties want. When I attended a conference three or four years ago in South Korea on the future of the peninsula, it was obvious to me that the South Koreans couldn't wait to get the process of reunification started; the main thing holding them back was the U.S.'s reluctance to give up the passions of the Cold War. They have studied the reunification of Germany assiduously, figuring to learn from what the West Germans did right and wrong. Most of the South Koreans I met were still strongly anti-communist, but saw the North not as a danger (at least not an imminent one) but as a catastrophe which they think they knew some ways to try to fix. But they couldn't start fixing until they established closer relations -- and even then most South Koreans were realistic enough to understand that there would be no changing the North overnight.

Meanwhile, North Korea, however its leaders may bluster, knows deep down that it's a failed experiment and has been trying almost pathetically hard to rejoin the rest of the world. The atomic flirtation was an attention-getting device, though a crude and risky one, as well as an understandable step in the wake of the U.S. having invaded the one member of Bush's bogus "axis of evil" that everyone who knew much of anything knew didn't have atomic weapons.

The key potentially embarrassing aspect to all this for the Bush administration, as I pointed out in a post almost a month ago, is that there's little reason not to apply similar tactics to Iran. Iran is a long way from acquiring nuclear weapons if it even has a serious intention of doing so. It has neighbors who would rather it didn't go nuclear and who have a certain amount of countervailing power -- nothing like the stranglehold China had on North Korea, but enough. Iran has made gestures suggesting a desire to be taken from the pariah-state status, but the U.S. has rejected every one. There's a basis for negotiation there. It could take years, as the North Korea situation did. But it's worth a try.

The problem is that the Bushies and neocons are reluctant to abandon the psychological comfort of having a pariah-state "new Hitler" in the world to justify their desire to start yet another war. Wouldn't it be nice if they would grow up and start thinking seriously -- if that's possible?