Thursday, May 31, 2007

That Guy

Fred Thompson? An instant contender for the Republican presidential nomination? You have got to be kidding me.

Let's not pretend he's being pushed for Prez because of his Senate tenure (which was lackluster) or his record as Watergate counsel (we're way, way past the time when anybody gets a boost from what he did in Watergate, especially if he's a Republican). Fred is a recognizable face from TV and movies, that's pretty much it. I know this is driven by nostalgia for Ronald Reagan, but at least Reagan was a real film actor. Fred Thompson is like human furniture; he just plays himself over and over again.

I wonder if we'll see an update on the Bush-Cheney scenario where Fred is the front man and Sam Waterston is in the back room doing all the heavy lifting. (Think about it a second: how much charisma can Fred Thompson have when he is a supporting player to the immortal Sam Waterston?)

Also, if Fred Thompson were POTUS then Dick Wolf ought to be Emperor of the Entire Known Universe.

It's a sad commentary when "Tall White Man with Southern Accent" describes a plausible candidate for President, such that a semi-competent character actor can fill the bill. It's almost completely arbitrary. Too bad "Lazy Eye" is not considered a presidential trait, we could have had Jack Elam stumping in South Carolina.

"I understand the problem. In other words, the problem is understood by me."

I really shouldn't bother linking Yglesias except on the rare occasion when I disagree with him... and it's mighty hard to argue against the proposition that the White House wants to be judged by its words and given a free pass on its deeds.

The administration, from Dubya on down, has a misfiring neuron when it comes to the connection between words and action, or words and intention. In some part of Dubya's brain he really believes that saying something makes it so, or announcing your intentions in a situation is the same as accomplishing those intentions.

My favorite Bush soundbites aren't the ones he mangles Norm Crosby-style. They are the absurdly amusing ones such as these (from memory, not verbatim):

  • In announcing his plan for a $50 billion anti-AIDS initiative in Africa, Bush says, emphatically, as if he's adding an innovative new wrinkle: "This money will be spent wisely."

  • In announcing Robert Zoellick as his choice to head the World Bank: "He understands the problem of Third World poverty."

These are trivial examples of a serious issue, a serious lack-of-seriousness, but it cracks me up when Bush says something that's instantly self-refuting. I mean, it didn't occur to me that Bush might embark on a plan to spend a lot of money unwisely, until he implanted that possibility by gravely assuring me he would be wise about it.

As for Zoellick, I was even starting to feel he might be an okay choice; he has a background in international finance, which Paul Wolfowitz certainly didn't. Then I hear Bush state what should be blindlingly obvious, that his World Bank chief understands the mission of the World Bank. Then I read via Josh Marshall that Bush and Rice respected Zoellick's work at State but his arrogant and pedantic style "drove them slightly bonkers....'Condi let's Bob do whatever he wants, so long as she doesn't have to talk to him about it.'" And now I'm grinning privately, and imagining Dubya at the podium, presidential as a heart attck, intoning: "There were other people who would have accepted this job offer. The World Bank is not, repeat not, a soft landing spot for all my inconvenient cronies."

This may be a too-roundabout way of saying that Bush is a dumb guy trying to play smart. I also enjoy Garry Trudeau's way of portraying Bush, e.g. "I find it curious that they would offer comfort to our enemies instead of to our warriors. In other words, offering comfort to our enemies instead of our warriors is something I find curious."

Sunk in the Sand

It’s been a mighty long time since I’ve reviewed a book in this space. That might be because it’s been a mighty long time since I’ve finished a book. I finally finished one that had been a Christmas present, Fiasco by Thomas Ricks. It’s about the Iraq invasion and occupation, especially from the point of view of the uniformed military. As the title suggests, Ricks catalogs the lapses of planning and execution that got us to where we are.

I give it a B. Ricks is a solid conventional reporter, and the book is a product of the Bob Woodward school of Instant History, which of course has shortcomings. Ricks uses some anonymous sources, and it’s generally easy to guess who the helpful sources were, because they come off better in the narrative. The book didn’t change my mind about many things, and it didn’t have much in the way of structure. It tends to alternate between a good operation and a bad one, a smart commander and a clueless one. But the overall tone rings true, it collects a lot of information in one place, and the book has a few haunting quotes and scenes that will stay with me. Our military officers naturally are a mixed bag of humanity, and only some of them had a full understanding of the challenge they faced in Iraq: in a word, counterinsurgency. The ones with a full understanding ran into systematic obstacles to enacting their vision. The stubborn, blinkered ones often were given their head. Even though Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld are mostly absent from these pages, the fact that the Iraq War couldn’t sift the ingredients correctly, couldn’t make these lemons into even barely-palatable lemonade, is an implied indictment of the leadership. (Ricks does editorialize, mildly, that the strategic confusion at the top may have led U.S. soldiers to treat ordinary Iraqis as terrorists, an attitude which poisoned the well.)

Matt Yglesias has a post today, prompted by a David Ignatius WaPo column which states that the Bush Administration has finally adopted the Iraq Study Group’s findings – only about six months after Bush’s initial reaction, which was to call the ISG report a "flaming turd" and treat it accordingly. Rather than call this a case of "better late than never," as Ignatius does, Yglesias deems this typical of the Bush M.O. in Iraq, to adopt a policy 6 to 12 months after it was proposed, at a time when a new set of facts on the ground make the policy useless.

Fiasco bears out Yglesias’s view. There are numerous examples of opportunities lost, and Ricks calls 2004 "a Sisyphean year" for the U.S. in Iraq, a year when we had to re-fight many battles and re-take many landmarks (most notably Fallujah). Our apparent strengths in technology and firepower sometimes led us down the wrong path. U.S. military intelligence became focused on foreign fighters in Iraq, because foreign fighters were detectable by means of signal intelligence. Unfortunately, sectarian violence was the much bigger problem, but recognizing the burgeoning insurgency would have required human intelligence capabilities, which the U.S. lacked.

Here are a few of the haunting parts:

The insurgency was created in 2003, largely by the American practice of raiding households in the middle of the night without good intelligence guiding the raids. (The Abu Ghraib scandal is attributable to the prison being swelled with men swept up in haphazard raids who weren’t guilty of anti-U.S. activities.) The 4th Infantry Division operated in the northern Sunni Triangle and in the book they come in for particular criticism for these tactics ("The 4th ID—what they did is a crime"). Iraqi men’s tribal sense of honor was insulted. One military historian believes that in the summer and fall of 2003, many of the episodes of Iraqi ambushes firing on US troops, were "honor shots" aimed over troops’ heads, intended not to kill Americans but to restore Iraqi honor. The U.S troops concluded that Iraqis were lousy marksmen.

A Special Forces officer spoke of the fiasco of the Fallujah Brigade, a real case of our not being able to tell our friends from our enemies, where the U.S. handed control of Fallujah to an officer who entered the city wearing the uniform of Saddam’s Republican Guard:

I looked Iraqis in the eye and they were thinking, ‘We can get rid of these
guys’… That was the day we lost the initiative. The Iraqis realized that they
could kick our ass—they had the option to bring the fight to us. (p. 349)

Special Forces, who train in counterinsurgency tactics, experienced a lot of attrition to private contractors, who paid much better and gave individual soldiers more autonomy and respect. Ricks discusses the deleterious influence of these contractors. Marine Colonel Thomas Hammes recounts a story of driving in Baghdad one day while wearing civilian clothes, and being detained by a group of private security troops, one of whom stuck his automatic rifle in Hammes’s face:

I was trying to see if his finger was on the trigger guard, because then you’re
four pounds of pressure from being gone…

These shooters, you’d see them in the gym. Steroids, tension, and guns are not a good mix. […]

The contractor was hired to protect the principal [the person being bodyguarded]. He had no stake in pacifying the country… [The U.S. has] loosed an unaccountable, deadly force into [Iraqi] society, and [Iraqis] have no recourse. (p. 370-371)

Monday, May 14, 2007

A Monday post --- just because.

Here is Charlie Pierce @ Altercation, saying something worth repeating. The presidential primary campaigns start too early, they are too crowded--you hear those complaints a lot--but here is another major reason why they are so unsatisfying right now:

For me, the biggest problem I have with the ongoing presidential campaign is that it is a context in which the most serious issue arising from the last seven years can't be seriously debated -- namely, the egregiously anti-constitutional expansion of executive power based of legal theories that seem to be derived from whatever Prussia has for magic mushrooms. It hasn't even come up, as near as I can recall, in either debate, and it's manifestly more serious than, say, abortion. It is the central place from which all of the depredations of the Avignon Presidency have issued -- whether that be unlimited warmaking power, the misuse of signing statements, the politicization of the Department of Justice, Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, the old energy task force and on and on. Only by breaking that power, and by burying forever the legal philosophy on which it's based, can you begin to clean up the wreckage. The problem is that there's no way to run for president on a platform of weakening the office. All you can do is say that you'll handle the power better and more responsibly than this guy did -- which is exactly the same as saying your seamanship's better than Captain Joe Hazlewood's is. I've long felt that the Constitution sadly lacked a serious voting constituency, largely because we've become so illiterate about our political and philosophical heritage. This campaign is going to be the grisliest evidence of that yet.

Emphasis added. My effort to say something similar once was here. Thinking about it, I wish there was a way to run for President that touts the symbolic or intangible strength of the Oval Office but rejects the unitary-executive theory (that's an arcane enough phrase that it might have dog-whistle properties) and endorses the idea that Congress has a job to do and the branches ought to work collegially. But certainly nobody is campaigning that way; and no Republican ever would due to their reliance on fear and authoritarianism and the Strong Daddy model of the presidency. The Constitution remains an unloved but wounded constituent.

Atrios reports on a controversy in the Philadelphia mayoral race: "quien es mas Catolica." Putting on my religious-lefty hat for a moment, this doesn't disturb me unduly. What Knox has done is rather sleazy, IMO, in the classic manner of last-minute attack leaflets that leave no fingerprints and little time for the target to respond. But sure, if religiosity is going to be deployed in the campaign, then questions of sincerity or phoniness are basically fair game.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Offline Life

There's some really good advice in this article by Stephen Elliott.


Okay, not that anyone else cares, but I can't resist responding to Jonathan Chait's article in The New Republic about the Democratic netroots.

Chait starts his piece with an account of the 2000 Bush-Gore Florida fiasco, and Markos Moulitsas's pointing to Florida '00 as a prime motivating experience for his entry into online activism. This is a not-unreasonable approach for Chait to take--Kos is the 800-pound gorilla, and Bush v. Gore was important in the rise of the liberal blogosphere. (Chait doesn't mention it, but Talking Points Memo started as an effort to organize Democratic action in the Florida controversy.)

But to focus exclusively on Kos and on the Florida recount oversimplifies things. It makes Chait's narrative all about the political spectrum, about pulling the national conversation farther left, regardless of policy debates taken on merit. It makes it all about wanting to create a Democratic machine that is as formidable and ruthless as the GOP machine. And that's not all the netroots are about. I'm sure I don't speak only for myself as a netroots denizen by naming two other experiences that outraged and lit a fire under me: I was shocked by the performance of the political media in 1998 with regard to Monicagate. And I'm continually horrified by the Bush Administration's ongoing refusal to govern in good faith, to play any issue straight, rather than treat issues merely as political footballs. Iraq and anti-terrorism are the number one example, but it's lots more than that. I would like the Environmental Protection Agency to, y'know, protect the environment. I would like the Justice Department to behave justly. I would like the FDA to regulate food and drugs in the public interest. I could go on and on.

I realize there is an ideological debate over, for instance, whether there should be an EPA and what its role should be. But the Bush GOP has not engaged that debate--it pretends to support the EPA's mission, while it ignores or suppresses the work of EPA professionals. That's an example of bad-faith governance.

Integrity and truth-telling and fairness and perspective and responsibility--all have become scarce commodities in elite American political discourse. That, to me, is what necessitated the blogosphere. In the wake of 9/11 it was probably inevitable that the U.S. would veer in a "conservative" direction. (Scare quotes are because it rankles me that national security is considered the pet issue of the right, but in fact it is.) What was not inevitable were the deceptions and the censorship (often self-censorship) and the bad faith and the buck-passing.

In similar fashion to the focus on Kos and Florida, Chait overstates the extent to which Rick Perlstein's Goldwater book is the Bible of the netroots. Important, yes, and universally admired, but I honestly don't see the uncritical desire by the Internet Left to emulate the "Direct-Mail Right" that Chait sees. It's not all about realpolitik, it's very much about restoring truth-telling to American political culture, and Grover Norquist is a poor role model for truth-telling.

Chait's strategy is understandable to the extent that it clarifies his thesis, but what's galling is how self-serving the article is, to the political journalism establishment and especially to The New Republic itself. Instead of repeating my rant from last night, I'll point to Eric Alterman and Matthew Yglesias, who were given space at the TNR website to respond and do a nice job of skewering TNR's disingenuousness. In light of how Chait portrays bloggers as envious and ungrateful toward the Dem establishment and, above all, a bit dumb (unsubtle, unsophisticated) it's interesting that Chait misses a few subtleties about the bloggers. Yglesias corrects one mischaracterization of himself, and surely Matt Stoller was being ironic when he called Grover Norquist his political hero.

Chait's sharpest insight is this, about the contrast between conservative and liberal intellectuals:

The worst thing that can happen to a conservative is to be seen as disloyal. The worst thing that can happen to a liberal is to be seen as "in the tank."

This is a great observation, as far as it goes. The range of acceptable opinions among conservatives is really narrow, while liberals are more concerned with at least appearing independent and with distinguishing themselves from the pack. (Gen-X liberals even more so, I'd bet, due to pop culture's mass neurotic dread of "selling out.") But it is wrong and distorting (due to the Kos/Florida problem) to treat the netroots as the funhouse-mirror counterpart to the conservative movement--as being as slavishly devoted to left-wing loyalty as the Weekly Standard is to right-wing loyalty.

Allow me to point out, again, that it's quite possible to be in the tank without being seen to be in the tank. The DLC - TNR mode of liberalism has given us the phenomenon of "liberal contrarianism," which is cleverness passing as originality -- a highly predictable sort of originality.

In the latter pages Chait makes several assertions that are just ass-backwards: that a blogger in Flyoverville is a starfucker as if a starving young J-school grad in Dupont Circle isn't one; that bloggers are intellectually dishonest (and magazine writers are honest? Mr. Chait, do you really believe there's no difference between the U.S. case for war in Afghanistan and in Iraq?). Atrios declares that he is not "above the fray," and Chait portrays that as a confession that he is not objective. What Atrios is doing is accepting responsibility for the consequences of what he writes. By being "above the fray," Jon Chait is evading responsibility. What Atrios is refusing to do is pretend politics is a parlor game or that words in print don't matter. Incidentally, the talk in the blogosphere of "memes and frames" is in the service of being responsible--of seeking to understand how words and ideas impact the political realm.

The crazy thing about this article is that I'm sure TNR will portray it as a glowing profile of the left blogosphere. Holding his nose in disdain, Chait concedes that the Democratic Party is being reformed by the netroots. From the penultimate paragraph:

At the end of this reformation, what will the left look like? It will look a lot more like the Republican machine that prevailed in Florida. It will be nastier and more ruthless, and less concerned with intellectual or procedural niceties.

On the contrary, I've been thinking lately, partly in relation to the U.S. attorneys scandal, that there are a number of fusty old traditions -- intellectual and procedural niceties, you could call them--for which I have a newfound appreciation. I'm for the government making personnel decisions in a orderly and transparent way, on merit. I'm for not deleting your e-mails. I'm for confirmation hearings, rather than recess appointments. In fact, I'm for hiring attorneys from the finest law schools, and not just from Pat Robertson's crackerjack-box, Draw The Bunny correspondence school of Who Would Jesus Investigate.

I could go on and on. I'm big on niceties and on due diligence. I'm for search warrants. I'm for WMD intelligence being analyzed and filtered in a careful, time-tested way, by the professionals, rather than stovepiped and cherry-picked. I'm for planning for the occupation, not just the invasion. I'm for not placing much trust in an informant named "Curveball."

You get the feeling from this article that in progressive political discourse, what's at stake is bragging rights, Valedictorian vs. Salutatorian, an epic contest between Marshall Wittman and Amanda Marcotte. The Republican radicals Bush and DeLay and Rove are absent from Chait's story; Left and Right are abstractions. There are certain precious goods in American civic life, including that set of procedural niceties that we call the Constitution, that are under threat, and not from some bullshit abstraction like "incivility," but from the Republican radicals.

TNR has made some real lulus, some real wingdings, in its editorial decisions the last few years. Backing the Iraq War, endorsing Joe Lieberman, etc. I wonder what sorts of intellectual and procedural niceties they observed.

Check out the responses by Atrios and Digby if you haven't already.