Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Bush/Cheney v. Amnesty International: What's truly offensive?

As expected, both Bush and Cheney have come out swinging against Amnesty International's 2005 report on U.S. human-rights abuses at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere. Bush called the report "absurd" and Cheney said that he was "offended by it". On Sunday, General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called it "absolutely irresponsible".

Bush: "It seemed like to me [Amnesty International] based some of their decisions on the word of and the allegations by people that were held in detention, people who hate America, people that have been trained in some instances to disassemble, that means not tell the truth." Yes, maybe. And he's right that, in theory, the U.S. "is a country that promotes freedom around the world". But in practice much of what has gone on in U.S. facilities -- all for the sake of the so-called war on terror, all (presumably) for the sake of "freedom around the world" -- is simply deplorable. Bush has refused to accept responsibility for any of it, and nor have any of his more significant underlings (i.e., Rumsfeld). Instead, blame has been heaped on low-level cogs. Where's the outrage?

My take on the AI report: click here.

Note: There has been some gross misrepresentation of AI's report. The Post story (see link, above) refers to "the gulag of our times," as if AI had accused the U.S. of operating Soviet-style concentration camps. The AI report on the U.S. -- click here -- makes no such claim. Bush may find the report "absurd," but neither he nor Cheney nor anyone else in any position of responsibility has addressed its specifics. It may be easy to write off such allegations, many of which we already know to be true, at a press conference, but, as usual, the Bush Administration wants nothing to do with the truth, relying instead on spin to deflect attention away from the facts.

Here's the vital question: What's more offensive, the AI report or what's actually happened (torture, rape, murder) in those heinous places?

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Has America gone insane?

There's a bigger story involving the Post today -- uh, something about Deep Throat -- but Richard Cohen's column about Paris Hilton (and what she represents) is an eloquent, Frank Rich-like must-read on the state of American culture -- click here. (And see my take on Ms. Hilton here.)

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Almost all the president's men: Mark Felt as Deep Throat

So W. Mark Felt, former #2 at the FBI, was Deep Throat. Or so he claims. Although, I'm not sure why anyone would admit so publicly to having been Deep Throat if that weren't the case. Why lie? So I'm tempted to accept Felt's claim.

Now, I have nothing against Felt. In fact, like most, I don't know much about him. And if he was in fact Deep Throat, then he deserves our gratitude, his courage our admiration. But there's nonetheless something disappointing about this revelation. Joel Achenbach puts it this way:

The truth is, Deep Throat is more interesting as an enigma, as a Mystery Man. Uncertainty is liberating. In foggy realms our imagination and creativity are unfettered. If D.T. is just a top FBI official, it's a huge letdown. First of all, it'd be better (from a dramatic standpoint) if it was a White House insider, rather than someone in law enforcement. (Why does an FBI agent leaking to a reporter not seem as snazzy as, say, a White House lawyer having a spasm of conscience?) But no matter who D.T. is, he's more interesting when we can project onto him a personality of our choosing... If Mark Felt really is Deep Throat, all we can say is: Oh. Him. Um, now what do we do?

Exactly. Now what? It was so much fun to speculate -- and to hope for a sexier anonymous source, like Rehnquist or Kissinger or Haig or Buchanan. Felt just doesn't arouse as much curiosity. All the President's Men, a fabulous movie, now loses some of its appeal.

Maybe, in the end, Deep Throat was the secret that everyone wanted to uncover that no one really wanted uncovered at all. We all love a mystery, but the payoff rarely lives up to expectations.

UPDATE: Timothy Noah in Slate (with links to his interesting Deep Throat Archive) -- click here.

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Spy games: The CIA's new air operations

A fascinating glimpse into the CIA's anti-terrorism operations: click here. Some of it is necessary, I'm sure -- and who am I to have anything to say about covert intelligence operations? -- but some of it is also deeply troubling. The practice of "rendition," for example, where terrorist suspects (even dubious ones) are picked up by the CIA, operating behind "front companies and shell corporations," and ferried to foreign jurisdictions that sanction torture (doesn't that mean the U.S. sanctions torture?). I also didn't realize that the spread of democracy requires ferrying around Libyan intelligence officers and the head of Sudanese intelligence. Thankfully, we have the Bush Doctrine to clear up all this apparent hypocrisy for us. Right? Or not?

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Monday, May 30, 2005

Is there a Bush Doctrine? If so, how many?

The Carpetbagger Report makes a good case that there have been, thus far, at least three variations -- with little consistency:
  1. With us or against us.
  2. Military preemption.
  3. The spread of democracy.

Or, if I may put them another way:

  1. Friends and enemies (see Carl Schmitt).
  2. War to prevent war (see Machiavelli).
  3. End-of-history idealism (see Hegel, Kojeve, Woodrow Wilson)

In my view, the various iterations of the so-called Bush Doctrine very much reflect fault-lines within American conservatism at the present time. The Republican Party is the political bottleneck for the conservative movement, which means that it is the White House, more or less, that channels conservative political theory into practise. (I think back to David Brooks's column in the Times a while back, where he argued that the strength of the conservative movement is precisely its diversity. Yes, to a point. But it would be nothing without an effective political machine. For more on this, see my comments here.)

The problem is that it is difficult to maintain consistency from theory to practice, from ideological rigor to political expediency (see Plato). To me, this is why the "Doctrine" has been so malleable. You have the traditional, old-school realists (Kissingerian types like Scowcroft and the rest of Bush I's team), the Christian moralists (Brownback et al.), and the neoconservatives at the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and The Weekly Standard. (Then there are the paleo-conservative isolationists like Pat Buchanan, but they don't have much influence in Washington these days.) The first emphasizes national self-interest (strictly defined), the second moral interventionism (often to defend Christians -- in Darfur, for example), the third an idealistic remodelling of the world order (largely to secure American hegemony). It seems as if the latter two have often squeezed out the first, though relations with Pakistan and Uzbekistan (to name but two) suggest that realism is very much alive beneath the rhetorical surface. All three seek realization through official policy channels, but, of course, those policy channels give way to political reality. In the end, it's Karl Rove, more than the ideologues at PNAC or the moralists scattered throughout America's "family"-oriented organizations, who determines the course of American foreign policy. So if the so-called Bush Doctrine seems to have shifted through various iterations, well, that's politics.

Which is not to excuse it, by the way. A little bit of consistency wouldn't be such a bad thing. What needs greater attention, though, is just how the "Doctrine" has been allowed to shift so significantly without much in the way of criticism of any of its fundamental premises (which themselves have shifted). It's like Bush saying that he wants Osama dead or alive, then saying that he doesn't think about him all that much and that the war on terror is bigger than one man. Well, sure. But shouldn't Bush be called out on that? And shouldn't he be required to explain just what his "Doctrine" is supposed to mean?

Dare one say... flip-flop?

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Two cheers for democracy... in Lebanon

Hariri... Hariri... Ha...

The Globe and Mail reports:

The good news:
Saad Hariri, the son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, swept parliamentary elections in Lebanon's capital, according to official results announced Monday for the country's first elections held largely free of Syrian domination.

Riding a sympathy vote, candidates led by Mr. Hariri won all 19 seats in the Beirut polls. The election is seen as a tribute to the leader whose February assassination triggered international anger and street protests that ultimately drove the Syrian army out of Lebanon...

Mr. Hariri was the biggest vote-getter, collecting 39,499 votes -- five times the distant loser in one constituency.

The bad news:
But turnout was low, at about 27 per cent of the 473,652 eligible voters, compared with 35 per cent in the 2000 parliamentary elections.

The weak turnout reflected public dissatisfaction amid calls for a boycott, complaints that the ticket of Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, lacked representation of political factions, and the lack of challengers in some constituencies. Television stations reported the boycott was strong in Christian areas.

The reaction:
Many observers expect the polls, the first free of Syrian meddling in 29 years, to sweep the anti-Syrian opposition to power and install a new parliament, removing the last vestiges of Damascus' control.

The vote was watched closely by the United States and other outside governments that pushed for a Syrian troop withdrawal and on-time elections, despite an election law widely described as unfair...

Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said the UN chief was encouraged by the democratic conduct of the first round of the Lebanese parliamentary elections and hoped the remaining rounds would take place in the same peaceful atmosphere.

“These elections constitute a major opportunity for the Lebanese people to shape their own future, to strengthen their political institutions and to restore their full sovereignty,” Mr. Annan said in a statement.

More than 100 observers from the European Union and the United Nations watched the vote for irregularities, the first time Lebanon has permitted foreign scrutiny.

“I see it as a potential for a new start,” said U.S. Senator Joseph Biden, who came to watch the balloting.

The lesson:

Biden is right. It's a potential for a new start, not in and of itself a new start. This was obviously a sympathy vote for Hariri, at least in part, and the low voter turnout and boycott calls reflect widespread dissatisfaction even after the Syrian withdrawal. In the West, we are so accustomed to democracy -- that is, we take it so much for granted -- that we think of it as somehow natural (even if liberal political philosophy, based on Hobbes and Locke, presumes precisely the unnaturalness of democracy -- we are nasty and brutish by nature, not democratic voters). In this case, the removal of Syrian occupation was seen as a necessary first step towards a democratic Lebanon. That's true, of course. Lebanon was never going to be free under such tyrannical rule. But democracy itself doesn't necessarily flourish in the absence of tyranny. Rather, its long-term viability depends on its taking root and, over time, developing legitimacy, especially where it has little to no history. It had centuries to develop in the West. It needs more than a preliminary election in Beirut to take hold in Lebanon.

Nonetheless, Hariri's victory is a positive sign that democracy will in fact succeed in Lebanon. But it won't do so just because there is no longer any foreign occupier, and we would do well not to take its inevitable success for granted. On the contrary, it needs to be nourished -- as in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. Democratic rhetoric is often, these days, Hegelian rhetoric: democracy as the end of history. Even President Bush has succumbed to such facile Hegelianism (see his Second Inaugural). But there is nothing inevitable about democracy, however much we may wish there were, and it is up to us, in the West, to promote its virtues and to encourage its success in historically non-democratic parts of the world.

There is much potential in Lebanon. Let's make sure it becomes reality.

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Sunday, May 29, 2005

L'Europe, c'est moi?


Non! Posted by Hello

Merde!

Poor Jacques Chirac. The French have rejected his beloved European Constitution. In today's referendum, the "No" side won over 55% of the vote, with turnout somewhere between 70 and 80%.

Am I happy about this? Yes and no.

Yes, because there's a lot about Europe (as a union) that I don't like. This may be my ancestral Englishness coming out, but there are serious problems with the proposed constitution as written. I favour some sort of economic union, one that allows for the free flow of labour and capital between and among member states, but I worry about further social and political integration. Indeed, what worries me most, and what concerns me about the constitution, is that Europe is more technocracy than democracy, a Brussels-run bureaucratic Leviathan that isn't democratically legitimate in any real way -- go check out the structure of the E.U. if you don't believe me. The U.S. Constitution has succeeded in part because the Framers took great care to focus on the political structure (and the democratic foundations of that structure) of their new republic, leaving specific issues, including controversial matters like slavery, for the new federal government (and state governments) to deal with (and to be addressed, if necessary, in Constitutional amendments). This apparent "failure" has been widely criticized by revisionists, but the U.S. Constitution's strength is precisely its "silence" on politics. For the E.U. to move forward, it needs the same kind of philosophical reflection on the nature of European democracy. And it needs a constitution that sticks to structural/institutional forms unsullied by transient political considerations.

No, because this was a victory of the extremes in French society, both left and right, both communists and fascists, both Popular Front and National Front. And those elsewhere who thoughtlessly celebrate the demise of the E.U. are similarly on the extremes (including many American conservatives who dislike Europe with knee-jerked glee). I may not want to see Europe integrate socially and politically (at least not to the extent that the technocrats do) -- what a massive, ungovernable monstrosity that would be! -- but nor do I want to see it dissolve back into what it once was, for much of its history: a collection of explicitly self-interested nation-states more or less in bloody competition with one another. Europe could do a lot better -- and maybe, just maybe, the result of the French referendum will prompt widespread reevaluation of the E.U. by its supporters -- but it could certainly do a lot worse.

Note: The E.U. Constitution has already been ratified (either by referendum or parliamentary vote) by Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain. The Netherlands will hold a referendum on June 1, Luxembourg on July 10, Denmark on September 27, and Ireland and Portugal later in the year. The U.K. will likely vote next year, along with the Czech Republic. There is no date set for a vote in Poland.

But France was a big one. As British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (who personally supported the "Yes" side) put it: "The result raises profound question for all of us about the future direction of Europe, about the challenges to us from the rest of the world, about the ability of the European Union to respond to these challenges and to the demands of its citizens... And tonight's result properly deserves a period of reflection by all 25 member states." Where Europe goes from here is anyone's (educated) guess.

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At last, a new anti-terrorism strategy: But is it too late?

Better late than never, I suppose. The Post reports:

The Bush administration has launched a high-level internal review of its efforts to battle international terrorism, aimed at moving away from a policy that has stressed efforts to capture and kill al Qaeda leaders since Sept. 11, 2001, and toward what a senior official called a broader "strategy against violent extremism."

The shift is meant to recognize the transformation of al Qaeda over the past three years into a far more amorphous, diffuse and difficult-to-target organization than the group that struck the United States in 2001. But critics say the policy review comes only after months of delay and lost opportunities while the administration left key counterterrorism jobs unfilled and argued internally over how best to confront the rapid spread of the pro-al Qaeda global Islamic jihad...


In many ways, this is the culmination of a heated debate that has been taking place inside and outside the government about how to target not only the remnants of al Qaeda but also broader support in the Muslim world for radical Islam. Administration officials refused to describe in detail what new policies are under consideration, and several sources familiar with the discussions said some issues remain sticking points, such as how central the ongoing war in Iraq is to the anti-terrorist effort, and how to accommodate State Department desires to normalize a foreign policy that has stressed terrorism to the exclusion of other priorities in recent years...

Much of the discussion has focused on how to deal with the rise of a new generation of terrorists, schooled in Iraq over the past couple years. Top government officials are increasingly turning their attention to anticipate what one called "the bleed out" of hundreds or thousands of Iraq-trained jihadists back to their home countries throughout the Middle East and Western Europe. "It's a new piece of a new equation," a former senior Bush administration official said. "If you don't know who they are in Iraq, how are you going to locate them in Istanbul or London?"

Indeed. It continues to amaze me that Bush won last year's election largely on national security and terrorism (not "values," as some still think). After all, you don't have to be Michael Moore to recognize just how pathetically his administration has conducted the so-called war on terror, both at home and abroad -- not to mention Iraq. Here's how Frank Rich puts it in today's Times:

Tom Ridge, now retired as homeland security czar, recently went on "The Daily Show" and joined in the yuks about the color-coded alerts. (He also told USA Today this month that orange alerts were sometimes ordered by the administration -- as election year approached, anyway -- on flimsy grounds and over his objections.) In February, the Office of Management and Budget found that "only four of the 33 homeland security programs it examined were 'effective,'" according to The Washington Post. The prospect of nuclear terrorism remains minimally addressed; instead we must take heart from Kiefer Sutherland's ability to thwart a nuclear missile hurling toward Los Angeles in the season finale of "24." The penetration of the capital's most restricted air space by that errant Cessna - though deemed a "red alert" - was considered such a nonurgent event by the Secret Service that it didn't bother to tell the president, bicycling in Maryland, until after the coast was clear.

But what has most separated America from the old exigencies of 9/11... is, at long last, the decoupling of the war on terror from the war on Iraq. The myth fostered by the administration that Saddam Hussein conspired in the 9/11 attacks is finally dead and so, apparently, is the parallel myth that Iraqis were among that day's hijackers. Our initial, post-9/11 war against Al Qaeda - the swift and decisive victory over the Taliban - is now seen as both a discrete event and ancient history (as is the hope of nailing Osama bin Laden dead or alive); Afghanistan itself has fallen off the American radar screen except as a site for burgeoning poppy production and the deaths of detainees in American custody. In its place stands only the war in Iraq, which is increasingly seen as an add-on to the war provoked by 9/11 and whose unpopularity grows by the day.

I'm no pacifist and I'm no isolationist. And, as a Canadian, I have long argued that my own government needs to do better to combat terrorism. But, whether we like it or not, anti-terrorism starts in the Oval Office. Is anyone there?

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Saturday, May 28, 2005

U.S.-China relations: Paving the way for Cold War II?

A warning from Kristof: "The most important diplomatic relationship in the world is between the U.S. and China. It's souring and could get much worse. Alas, the U.S. is mostly to blame for this. And the biggest culprit of all is the demagoguery of some Democrats in Congress." Well, maybe. It is certainly true that economic protectionism, a fear-based response to globalization and the domestic pressures of outsourcing, is the thin end of the wedge when it comes to diplomatic relations, and our response to the emergence of China as an economic superpower should not be to cut ourselves off (or to try to isolate China, which wouldn't work anyway).

Kristof again: "There are plenty of legitimate reasons to be angry with China's leaders, but its trade success and exchange rate policy are not among them. The country that is distorting global capital flows and destabilizing the world economy is not China but the U.S. American fiscal recklessness is a genuine international problem, while blaming Chinese for making shoes efficiently amounts to a protectionist assault on the global trade system." I'm not sure that it's all the Democrats fault. Republicans, whatever the sincerity of their laissez-faire rhetoric, are just as capable of protectionism as Democrats. Indeed, Kristof is simply wrong to assert that Bush's adoption of protectionist policies is a result of Democratic pressure. Come on, when has Bush ever given in to such pressure? And let's not forget that any "souring" of U.S. relations must be attributed at least in part to Chinese nationalism, which is on the rise and not going away anytime soon -- see Robert Kaplan's excellent piece in the June Atlantic. And then there's North Korea, another wedge issue that needs to be dealt with seriously by the Bush Administration.

Regardless, these are the issues that we need to be thinking about if we are to avert a second Cold War, one perhaps more perilous than the first. ($2.35 for Kristof? No, I'll stick with $4.30 -- or maybe a few cents less.)

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Law & Order & DeLay: Who's got a persecution complex?

Poor Tom DeLay. First all those ethics violations, and now the gang at Law & Order is looking for "somebody in a Tom DeLay T-shirt". (CNN reports here.)

DeLay to NBC President Jeff Zucker: "This manipulation of my name and trivialization of the sensitive issue of judicial security represents a reckless disregard for the suffering initiated by recent tragedies and a great disservice to public discourse... I can only assume last night's slur was in response to comments I have made in the past about the need for Congress to closely monitor the federal judiciary, as prescribed in our constitutional system of checks and balances."

Law & Order creator and executive producer Dick Wolf: "Every week, approximately 100 million people see an episode of the branded 'Law & Order' series. Up until today, it was my impression that all of our viewers understood that these shows are works of fiction as is stated in each episode. But I do congratulate Congressman DeLay for switching the spotlight from his own problems to an episode of a TV show."

Honestly, what the hell is DeLay talking about? Was that one reference to "somebody in a Tom DeLay T-shirt" really a masked attack on DeLay himself? A not-so-subtle "response" to his own attacks on the judiciary (however much he may claim to be in the right -- which he's not)? How was it a "slur"? And how does it show "disregard for the suffering initiated by recent tragedies and a great disservice to public discourse"? What "suffering"? What "recent tragedies"? And how does DeLay himself ever contribute to "public discourse" except by mocking it with his very presence in the public spotlight?

Call it DeLay's political correctness. If you "attack" him, you're really attacking those who have suffered through "recent tragedies" and lowering "political discourse". So much for free speech.

Wolf is right. DeLay's looking for a scapegoat. Any scapegoat. But it won't work. His record, more and more of which keeps coming out, speaks for itself. A fictional TV show just won't provide cover for all those ethics violations, no matter how hard he tries to deflect responsibility by blaming others.

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Nuclear proliferation: Might as well learn to love it

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that the month-long U.N. conference on nuclear proliferation has ended in failure, largely because of disagreements between the U.S., Iran, and Egypt:

Representatives of more than 150 nations convened at U.N. headquarters to seek ways to stop more countries from developing nuclear weapons, prevent terrorists from acquiring them, and get a renewed commitment from atomic powers — especially the United States — to significantly reduce their stockpiles...

The United States tried to keep the focus on alleged nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea instead of its pledges to whittle down its own arsenal...

"The conference after a full month ended up where we started, which is a system full of loopholes, ailing and not a road map to fix it," Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told reporters in Vienna as the conference fizzled to a close.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan launched the conference — a review of the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — on May 2, telling delegates that "the consequences of failure are too great to aim for anything less" than new measures to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and reduce the number of existing arms...

Annan said Friday that conference participants had "missed a vital opportunity" to strengthen the world's collective security and urged leaders to take up the issues again at a September summit at the U.N.

A number of diplomats put much of the blame for the deadlock on the United States.

Well, of course they did -- and perhaps not just because of anti-Americanism. After all, a strong case can be made against Iran and North Korea, and perhaps Russia, but the problem is that it doesn't make much sense for the U.S. to push non-proliferation (and a legitimate concern for nuclear terrorism) while simultaneously refusing to address its own stockpiles, preventing discussion of Israel (which likely possesses nuclear weapons), and researching next-generation nuclear weapons. This is an extraordinarily important issue, but, as usual, the Bush Administration is pushing its own unilateralist agenda.

Yup, Bolton will fit in just fine.

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Say it with me: President... Hillary... Clinton...

Sure to provoke. A new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll (for whatever it's worth) indicates that over a majority of Americans would be at least "somewhat likely" to vote for Senator Clinton in 2008. In addition, a similar majority holds a favorable view of her. Fasten your seat belts, political junkies, the run-up to 2008, already underway, is gonna be a whole lotta fun to watch. (No, I'm not endorsing anyone here -- I'll likely go with a moderate Democrat -- but we should all rid ourselves of the stupid stereotypes and give Senator Clinton a chance now that she's got a record of her own.)

Check out The Moderate Voice's take here.

**********

On another note, Microsoft, which The Reaction has previously lambasted (here and here), has severed its relationship with Ralph Reed, Republican/evangelical activist and hypocrite extraordinaire, who was on retainer as a lobbyist. Good news indeed, although the very fact that he even was a Microsoft lobbyist makes Apple all the more appealing.

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Friday, May 27, 2005

Torture, terror, and justice: Amnesty International on America's human-rights record

The blue gal in a red state (see link, right) alerts us to Amnesty International's recently released 2005 report. As an ardent opponent of the death penalty and (of course) human-rights abuses, I have the utmost respect for AI. (Disclosure: I was once a member.) Though I have always sensed a latent anti-Americanism in its comparative studies (i.e., treating the U.S. more harshly than deserved), its work is, in my view, extremely important, not least because there seems to be a tendency to ignore human-rights abuses around the world, or perhaps to pretend that they're not really happening (e.g., Rwanda, Darfur), or to fall back into a certain smug complacency that all must be well, especially if we don't know about it. This year, the report on the U.S. is particularly bleak. I quote the summary here (but be sure to read the full piece)
Hundreds of detainees continued to be held without charge or trial at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Thousands of people were detained during US military and security operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and routinely denied access to their families and lawyers.

Military investigations were initiated or conducted into allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees by US personnel in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and into reports of deaths in custody and ill-treatment by US forces elsewhere in Iraq, and in Afghanistan and Guantánamo. Evidence came to light that the US administration had sanctioned interrogation techniques that violated the UN Convention against Torture. Pre-trial military commission hearings opened in Guantánamo but were suspended pending a US court ruling.

In the USA, more than 40 people died after being struck by police tasers, raising concern about the safety of such weapons. The death penalty continued to be imposed and carried out.

I bring it up here not to gloat, not because I am in any way anti-American, not to ridicule what I think is, on the whole, a noble and just land -- maybe not the last, best hope of earth, but pretty darn close. No, I bring it up because I think that self-examination is as imporant on the national level as on the individual level. The U.S. exists according to the universal principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence and enshrined politically in the Constitution. It was inevitable that the U.S. would fall short of those principles. Slavery is the most obviously example, but the Framers wrestled with this question, and some looked forward to the day when it would be abolished. Such examples of injustice are, to say the least, blights on American history, but they do not necessarily invalidate those universal principles. Indeed, it is America's strength, I believe, that it has, throughout its history, attempted to live up to those principles, or at least to approximate them, even if the realities have occasionally suggested otherwise. What I would argue, though is that self-examination may lead to self-criticism, which in turn may lead to self-improvement. It is only through examining our flaws and coming to terms with them that we can ever hope of correcting them. That, I think, is why AI's evaluation of America's transgressions is so important.

As for those transgressions: I wish they were not so, but they are, and we must live in the light of the truth, not in some fantasyland where all seems to be for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Note: Canada is hardly excused from criticism (see here), although our record has been pretty good. Nor is the United Kingdom (see here), of which I am (for the sake of full disclosure) also a citizen.

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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Closer... closer... closer... cloture!

The Senate needed 60 votes earlier today to invoke cloture (close off debate) and send the Bolton nomination to an immediate confirmation vote. It failed by four votes (56-42). Democrats Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas voted with the Republicans -- Landrieu's now 0-for-2 in these controversial confirmations, having voted yesterday for Priscilla Owen. The Democrats don't intend to filibuster the Bolton nomination, but Christopher Dodd of Connecticut has it right: "I don't think we're being treated as a co-equal branch of government." Indeed. The Senate was intended by the Framers to be one of the institutional checks not only on the more democratic House and the executive and judicial branches of the federal government but also on the demagogic tendencies of democracy generally. That is, it was intended to be the repository of deliberative democracy. But not under Bush, who exerts executive authority over a Republican Congress and, through it, over the federal judiciary. To me, the Democrats are defending more than just the filibuster, more than just a procedural matter. They're defending the very purpose of the Senate -- and, by extension, the very core of American democracy -- while the Republicans are running roughshod over the very notion of checks and balances, turning Congress into the legislative arm of the White House and the judiciary into a weapon of right-wing activism. I don't think that's what they teach you in grade school.

I suspect that, in the end, Bolton will be confirmed. But at least the failure to invoke cloture will allow for more debate. And with a nominee this controversial, and with more revelations coming out about his past (notably concerning NSA intercepts), that's absolutely what we need.

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Can we call it Korangate? Or is that wrong?

Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice, who has been wonderfully supportive of my blogging and kind enough to link to The Reaction, has an excellent overview of the hyperactive (if predictable) blogospheric reaction to Korangate -- you know, Newsweek's much-maligned (because unsubstantiated) story about the flushing of the Koran at Guantanamo.

To be honest, I'm not sure what to make of the story. Did it happen? Maybe. I mean, look what else has happened, look what else passes for accepted interrogation techniques at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere. Would it really surprise anyone that it happened? Newsweek (a well-respected publication) and the author of the story, Michael Isikoff (a well-respected journalist -- who, by the way, once went after Clinton on Monicagate), may not have been able to back up their story, but there's a good deal more complexity here than can be gleaned from the usual left-right potshots (some on the left want it to be true so as to tarnish Bush yet further; some on the right want it to be false so as to tarnish the "liberal" media). According to the Post, the Pentagon "has not received any specific, credible allegations of willful desecration of the Koran by interrogators at" Guantanamo (see here). But "[d]etainees told FBI interrogators as early as April 2002 that mistreatment of the Koran was widespread" there (see here), even though "[m]ore than two years ago, the Pentagon issued detailed rules for handling the Koran" -- including keeping it away from "offensive areas" and showing it "respect and reverence" (see here). For now, then, it's something of a we-said-they-said controversy. I'm inclined to believe the Pentagon more than the detainees, many of whom are al Qaeda or Taliban, but it's also clear that U.S. security and military personnel have hardly shown themselves to be above truly reprehensible behaviour.

On Korangate, I tend to agree with TNR's Michelle Cottle (see here):
Conservative activists and pundits... have been loudly insisting that Newsweek's screw up is some morally debased, unpatriotic, politically motivated attempt to damage the Bush administration--nay, the Armed Forces themselves--in the eyes of the world. And though less vitriolic, even the White House is proclaiming a little too much self-righteous astonishment that anyone anywhere could have possibly contemplated running such an obviously untrue, unfounded story based on the word of one measly government source. (This is, after all, the same administration that swore Saddam Hussein had a bioweapons program based on the word of a single Iraqi defector, nicknamed Curveball, whom the CIA had been warned was crazy and most likely a liar. So if the Bushies really want to have a debate about poor sourcing and inaccurate claims that have contributed to massive bloodshed, I'd say Newsweek still holds the high ground.)

That said, it's hardly surprising that conservatives are scrambling to paint Newsweek as an evil actor. Destroying the credibility of the entire mainstream media would be just fine with most Republicans, especially those in this White House. (Hell, these days the Bushies don't think a story is credible unless they've actually paid a journalist or news outlet to disseminate it.) From the perspective of many conservatives, they are at war with a liberal, elitist mainstream press.

Newsweek is now the easy target, and, once more, the right is trying to deflect attention away from the real story, that is, from what's really going on at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere (just as they tried to deflect attention away from the records of Bush's extremist judicial nominees by focusing on process -- i.e., the filibuster). It's a strategy that works, clearly, but more and more the weight of the evidence, Koran-flushing or not, is building. And that does not, by the way, make me happy. I don't much care for Bush, as must be clear by now, but I do not wish ignominy on the United States. I may disagree with the conduct of the so-called war on terror, including the occupation of Iraq, but I do not hope for America's failure. But with power comes responsibility, and, no matter the pathetic attempts by both sides to score political points, that's precisely what's missing.

May the truth win out.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Bolton update: Cowardice and confirmation

One of my favourite bloggers, Laura Rozen, has three new posts on the Bolton nomination at "War and Piece": here, here, and here. Check them out.

Plus, an excellent piece on Voinovich by Noam Scheiber (who now makes his second appearance at The Reaction today) in TNR -- alas, by subscription only. Last week, Voinovich stated in no uncertain terms that "John Bolton is the poster child of what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be," but then he did little to block the nomination. Scheiber is right: By "failing to follow through when he could have blocked the nomination, he damage[d] the very principles he claims to espouse". If Bolton shouldn't be in "the diplomatic corps," let alone U.S. ambassador to the U.N., then why -- why?! -- refuse to block his nomination in committee? Was it not that important after all? Well, maybe. In the end, he caved in to pressure from the White House (not the first time he's done that, Scheiber notes). "George Voinovich proved himself to be an enabler of the administration's worst excesses when he caved on Bolton last Thursday." Indeed.

How sad, but how predictable.

(My own posts on Bolton, including a great haiku by Grace Miao and an open letter to John Bolton that I wrote with the help of a certain Michael Bolton, are, in reverse order, here (the haiku), here, here, here (my open letter), here, and here.)

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Leave us alone, please, we're Canadian

This is why I don't mind so much that Americans more or less ignore what goes on north of the border, regardless of what I may have written in a previous post. This Times piece on Canada -- entitled "Was Canada Just Too Good to Be True?" -- is an example of extreme superficiality. For example, the author, Clifford Krauss, suggests that "no other country puts such a high premium on its own virtue than does Canada". What? Being a Canadian and having lived in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and Germany, I think I'm in a good position to attest to what I see as Canada's profound sense of self-doubt (which is precisely why we want Americans to pay attention to us and why we celebrate even our atrocious celebrities -- Celine, Shania, Avril, etc. -- who make it in the U.S.). Krauss goes on: "The recent spectacle of scandal and tawdry politics has some Canadians now wondering if all the self-congratulatory virtue is not mixed with some old-fashioned hypocrisy." Oh, come on. Yes, some Canadians ground their sense of national identity in pompous up-with-Canada cheerleading, but there's hardly an abundance of "self-congratulatory virtue" up here.

My Conservative friends, who regularly object to what they see as Liberal self-righteousness, may disagree with me, but the problem with Canada, in my view, is that it lacks precisely such a unifying sense of self. We are a country, after all, that seems to be perpetually on the verge of collapse, unsure of ourselves and our place in the age of globalization, torn between the New World and the Old, simultaneously American and un-American and anti-American, plagued by intense regionalism, and, worse, Quebecois separatism and Western alienation. Krauss may have interviewed the columnist and literary critic Robert Fulford and University of Toronto professor and public intellectual Janice Stein, neither of whom has much of substance to say (as usual), but he should have checked in with Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwyn, whose book Nationalism Without Walls is appropriately subtitled "The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian". That pretty much sums it up.

University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss is quite right. We're no moral superpower. But this narrow view of Canada in America's leading newspaper, one which gleefully exposes our apparent hypocrisies, hardly does Canada any justice at all. At least try to understand us as we really are before you condemn us for not living up to our ideals. We might just have some that are worth your consideration.

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Read Rumsfeld's lips: The buck does NOT stop here!

T.A. Frank, standing in for Noam Scheiber at TNR's "&c." blog, tackles the irresponsibility of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who thus far has refused to assume any blame for what has happened at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere (and hence who has failed to provide any real leadership at the Pentagon).

You know, the whole torture thing? Not that anyone's paying much attention to it anymore. Besides, wasn't it all the fault of good-for-nothing lowlifes in the National Guard? Isn't that what the Bushies would have us believe? In my more extreme moments -- or perhaps when I'm thinking most clearly about justice -- I think Bush should be brought up on charges of treason for letting low-level members of the Armed Forces take the fall for the obvious transgressions of his own underlings and for his own administration's torture-enabling culture. Americans should demand better of their commander-in-chief.

(My take on Lynndie England is here.)

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Priscilla R. Owen, right-wing activist, welcome to the Fifth Circuit

See?

The filibuster is, temporarily, laid to rest through the efforts of a McCain-led coalition of moderates and mavericks, Democrats and Republicans argue amongst themselves as to whether the "deal" was worthwhile, and -- bam! -- Priscilla Owen, one of Bush's extremist judicial nominees, is confirmed, promoted from the Texas Supreme Court to the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Fifth Circuit. Just like that. 56-43.

There's a reason Owen's confirmation has taken four years. There's a reason Republicans wanted to cut off debate. There's a reason they threatened the nuclear option to rid the Senate of the filibuster. She's a right-wing activist, but at least for her sake she's had a mostly right-wing activist party to back her. My take is here.

Note: Senators Byrd of West Virginia and Landrieu of Louisiana, both Democrats, voted for Owen. Senator Chafee of Rhode Island, who spinelessly backed John Bolton's nomination on the Foreign Relations Committee (despite his own strong misgivings), voted against Owen: 1-for-2 is a great batting average, but not much of a senatorial record. Let's see how he does on...

Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor. Who are up next.

So how exactly is this good for Democrats? How exactly is it good for America?

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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Sign of the Apocalypse #6: Rob, Amber, and the "sanctity" of marriage

Tim Goodman is right (as usual). There's a lot of good (and some must-see) TV out there. Admittedly, I don't watch much of it, at least not the popular daytime or primetime fare. Aside from news and sports, I tend to stick to The Daily Show (my only must-see), the new Family Guy episodes, and Seinfeld, Simpsons, and Family Guy reruns (although, with those three shows on DVD, less so than before). Oh, and the Food Network. And whatever else I can find throughout my multi-hundred-channel digital cable package with movies and time-shifting. Fine, I'm a TV junkie. But I still don't watch much first-run stuff. Still, Goodman's top-10 + honourable mentions is an impressive list of artistic achievement for a medium that is rarely credited with much in the way of, well, artistic achievement. I concur with much of it. Aside from Desperate Housewives -- I gave it a shot, but came to the quick realization that it sucks. And I do not -- repeat, DO NOT -- watch American Idol or Survivor, neither of which I can stand. And, just for the record (not that Goodman much liked it either), I truly, utterly, and completely despised Everybody Loves Raymond -- good riddance.

All of which is to say, once again, that TV isn't so bad. Indeed, much of it is quite good. And some of it is truly extraordinary.

Of course, much of it is awful. Anything with Pat O'Brien, for example. Or Dr. Phil. (Hence my Sign of the Apocalypse #3 -- see here.) Or Nancy Grace, perhaps the most reprehensible television personality of all. Or anything on Fox News. Or all those inane "reality" shows -- you know the ones I'm talking about. Don't tell me you haven't seen them...

Which brings me to this gem:

Rob and Amber Get Married, a two-hour special tonight on CBS. In fact, I can hear it in the background, arousing my irritation, frustration, and gastrointestinal fortification with each passing second. Yes, that Rob and that Amber, they of Survivor and Amazing Race fame. They whose 15 minutes were up a long, long time ago. How is this possible? No, seriously, I want to know. How? Tell me.

I can't wait for:
Rob Knocks Up Amber
Rob and Amber Have Twins
Rob and Amber Go Through a Mid-Life Crisis
Rob and Amber Become Swingers
Rob and Amber Fall in Love With Other Former Survivors
Rob and Amber Get Divorced, American-Style
Rob and Amber Do Amazing Race 37
Rob and Amber...

Is anyone else out there as thoroughly pissed off as I am? I wish someone would drop the nuclear option on the both of them and let us move forward in peace.

(Speaking of The Amazing Race, who the hell is Bertram von Munster?)

HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?!

UPDATE: A funny piece in Slate on the ironic moralism of Desperate Housewives. I concur. It was fine, at first, but then it was revealed for what it is: way-behind-the-curve, annoyingly melodramatic social satire without much of a point.

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Monday, May 23, 2005

The Democrats cave: No filibuster for extremist judges

I usually support moderation to left-right extremism, and hence moderate solutions to left-right paralysis, but the agreement between Republicans and seven moderate Democrats to allow three of Bush's extremist judicial nominees to go straight to a floor vote without filibuster -- reported here -- doesn't seem like much of a compromise to me. However much moderates like Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut are praising this last-minute effort to avert "nuclear" catastrophe in the Senate, it is clear that Bush and the Republicans have won. After all, the Senate had already confirmed the vast majority of Bush's nominees, and the "Odious Seven" left over are clearly extremists. See my recent post for a longer take on this. A better option is outlined by Mark Schmitt at The Decembrist (a great blog: see link, right), but now even that one is out of the question. Instead of moderate Republicans siding with unified Democrats to protect the filibuster (and hence indirectly to vote down Bush's extremist nominees), moderate Democrats have sided with unified Republicans (John McCain was "a chief architect of the deal") to guarantee confirmation for three of Bush's extremist nominees without effectively closing debate on the nuclear option, which may be used later to ram through a Supreme Court nominee. So what have the Democrats won? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Schmitt was right to point out that a compromise would have been "disastrous" for Senate Majority Leader (and 2008 aspirant) Bill Frist. Which is precisely why this isn't a compromise of any kind. The Democrats -- some of them, anyway -- have caved. This is a huge moral victory for a beleaguered Republican Party, and both the White House and Congress will no doubt seek to keep up the momentum going forward. Who are the cowards now?

UPDATE: Mark Schmitt's latest on the filibuster fiasco take can be found here: "If the goal of liberals is to block a truly extremist Supreme Court nominee, block Social Security privatization and more tax cuts, block Bolton, and then begin to shift the debate back to issues of economic security, health care, global leadership, etc., the best possible thing that can happen is for the White House and its agents, such as Frist, to lose their control of all the levers of power in Congress. That's indisputably what this deal does, and for that, I'll learn to love it." Schmitt offers three compelling rationalizations for why the "compromise" may not be so bad after all, but I'm not yet convinced. Then again, I'm allowed to remain unconvinced. Writing a blog and commenting on American politics allows me a certain distance from the real world, and, as Schmitt himself admits, "[a] deal that someone like me would be ecstatic about probably wouldn't attract much Republican support". Fair enough. We'll have to live with the deal and hope that, in future, Republicans won't once again threaten to use the nuclear option (thought I suspect they will). With time, I may come to see the wisdom of Schmitt's analysis. Right now, I see its outlines, but I'm just too angry to think clearly enough about the implications of this less-than-ideal compromise -- and learning to love it, if I may reference Seinfeld, seems like learning to love a football-sized boil growing out of the side of your neck.

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Germany: The demise of the Social Democrats, the return of anti-Americanism


Ich bin ein... loser? Posted by Hello

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD), led locally by Minister-President Peer Steinbrueck, fell to the Christian Democrats (CDU) in Sunday's state election in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), and Schroeder is now poised for a confidence vote in the federal Bundestag that will likely lead to an early election, perhaps this fall. NRW, Germany's most populous state and the industrial center of the country, is the heartland of the SPD, and the new center-right CDU-FDP (Free Democratic Party) coalition will be the first non-SPD government there since 1966. The CDU, under Juergen Ruettgers, received 44.8% of the vote and won 89 seats; the SPD 37.1 and 74; the FDP 6.2 and 12; and the Greens, the SPD's coalition partner in Steinbrueck's government, also 6.2 and 12.

This is stunning news in NRW, which, with an unemployment rate of 12.1%, is experiencing the economic doldrums that are currently plaguing the whole country. But the ramifications of what was merely a state election will be significant. Schroeder: "With the bitter election results for my party in North Rhine-Westphalia, the political basis for the continuation of our work has been called into question." Said his rival, Angela Merkel, federal leader of the CDU and Schroeder's main opponent: "This is a historic victory... This clearly shows that Red-Green governments are unable to solve the burning problems of this country, such as unemployment and a sluggish economy." Indeed, NRW was the last state to be run by an SPD-Green coalition.

What this means to us is unclear, although we in North America are sure to feel the effects of a shift in German leadership, not least in terms of Germany's political and economic participation in Europe. But what is clear is that we are in for a repeat of Schroeder's anti-American campaign of 2002, when he shifted to the left and used the war in Iraq to eke out a narrow victory over the CDU. Whatever his motivations -- and who doesn't shift around the spectrum to try to win close elections? -- I've always thought that Germany's opposition to the war was more principled than France's, which, as we now know, was in bed with Saddam and deeply involved in the oil-for-food scandal. In France, anti-Americanism is a way of life; in Germany, it's more of a useful campaign tool. Perhaps that makes politicians like Schroeder mere opportunists, but at least their friendship is generally sincere, whatever the rhetoric. And now it's back: The SPD has already begun its shift to the left in preparation for a fall election, and the results in NRW, where the party lost despite a strong labour base, will only accelerate the shift. As Clay Risen has outlined in an excellent piece in The New Republic, the new demon is "international capital," an indication that Kapitalismus-Kritik will be a cornerstone of Schroeder's election campaign. So much for Schroeder's moderate (even Blairite) neo-liberalism. The SPD is back, in speech, to its old-fashioned socialism. From Risen's piece:

[I]t's been no surprise to see his party's leadership take a sharp populist turn over the last few weeks, lashing out at "international capital" and the "Anglo-Saxon" business model as a threat to the German social system. In some ways it's a repeat performance of his 2002 federal election strategy, in which to save his post he demonized Bush on Iraq and all but tanked U.S.-German relations. Fortunately, Schröder has been able to repair some of the damage done by that first attack, sending soldiers to Afghanistan and training Iraqi troops. This time around, though, the debate engendered by his party's rhetoric is both more virulent and more likely to spread uncontrollably, influencing not just bilateral government relations but business relations as well. And that's bad news for both sides of the Atlantic.

While the debate spawned by the SPD has spread to include "foreign" capital writ large, the initial target was very specific. In an interview last month, SPD Chair Franz Müntefering referred to foreign hedge funds as "locusts" that sweep in on German companies, gobble up their value, and then leave...

The problem, of course, is that the debate will likely do more than reorient the SPD--in the minds of foreign investors, it is likely to reorient Germany as well. Schröder has tried to limit his focus to a specific kind of investor and play down the impression that he is going after foreign capital in general. In the same speech calling for hedge fund limits, he said, "We need foreign capital coming into the country." But that's a distinction lost on most voters tired of high unemployment and stagnant growth. Indeed, Müntefering's attack found fertile soil in the minds of many Germans, coming as it did in the wake of anti-Americanism stirred by Schröder's last populist Hail Mary. A union magazine, for instance, recently published a cover that read, "U.S. Companies in Germany: Bloodsuckers." And it's not just the working class: On a recent trip to Germany, I heard repeated criticism from mainstream German politicians of the "Anglo-Saxon" business model, which many view as a growing threat to German society.

It's also a distinction likely to be lost on foreign investors themselves. Even if they decide that Schröder is just trying to score political points, it's a clear signal that the chancellor is unwilling to take full responsibility for his previous efforts at opening the German economy--and thus likely to behave unpredictably in the future. If he's willing to dabble in anti-capitalist rhetoric to win a state election, who knows what he will do next year? To be sure, there needs to be room in German politics for a critique of globalization, which is inarguably a challenge for countries with robust social welfare systems. But as more than a few critics have pointed out, the SPD should be looking for ways to harness foreign capital to social ends, not scare it away. Germany's tax revenues are down significantly, and economists predict that for the foreseeable future the European economy, riding on a meager 1.5 percent growth, will be incapable of providing the investment boost needed to get the public till full again.

As the Financial Times noted this week, "Mr. Schröder's plan suggests that the anti-capitalist tone could ... also inform policy over the next 16 months." Whether that will save him in 2006 is anyone's guess; given the public's anti-American sentiment, it could very well be a winner for the SPD. But it will be a loser for everyone else.

Risen is right. There does need to be a healthy critique of globalization -- in all capitalist societies. In addition, Germany's tradition of social capitalism has long been a healthy counterpoint to "Anglo-Saxon" liberal capitalism. But turning on foreign investment when your own unemployment rate stands at 12% and when even your own heartland turns against you isn't the right way to go. And it's particularly worrisome whenever Germany turns inward and sets itself in opposition to some designated "Other" -- even if that "Other" is as seemingly banal as "international capital".

Anti-European conservatives will hold this up to be yet another sign of Europe's decadence. Whatever my own reservations about the future of Europe (not least its anti-democratic tendencies), it is important that Germany, the continent's leading economy, be engaged with its European partners, as well as with its traditional allies across the Atlantic. At least we know that Schroeder is just playing typical political games. But at what price?

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The greed of the Times: Op-Ed columnists by the dollar

The results of Timothy Noah's Chatterbox poll in Slate (see my previous post for an explanation -- and my own allocations):

Krugman: $6.90.
Friedman: $4.10.
Rich: $3.92.
Dowd: $3.42.
Kristof: $2.35.
Herbert: $1.42.
Brooks: $1.39.
Tierney: $0.31.

No, the numbers don't add up to $25, but Noah offers an explanation for this. Some other observations:

Although I put Rich on top, by a substantial margin, Krugman and Friedman are both deserving of reader support -- I had them second and third, just ahead of Kristof.

Speaking of whom, it's tough to see Kristof below Dowd. I realize that Dowd may be popular among the Bush-haters and that her column is, well, different (if I may employ a useful euphemism), but Kristof is surely a more important columnist. I used to like Dowd, but I now find her shtick quite tiresome, and Kristof at least brings light to unreported stories and overlooked parts of the world -- far more substance than silly names for the Bushies.

Poor Herbert. I gave him no respect, and nor did other Chatterbox readers. He's really not a bad columnist, just mediocre and rarely with much to say. Take his most recent, on Rumsfeld. "How does Donald Rumsfeld survive as defense secretary," he asks, before proceeding to run down the predictable list of reasons why he should have been turfed out long ago: bad planning, prisoner abuse, arrogance, etc. I agree with all of it. I loathe Rumsfeld and I think that he needs to take responsible (and be held accountable) for what's gone wrong in Iraq (and elsewhere). The problem is that Herbert doesn't bring anything new to the column. No investigative reporting, no new facts, no serious analysis, nothing that hasn't been said before, nothing that you can't find in endless permutations throughout the media (including the blogosphere). If that's all it takes to be a Times columnist, where do I send my c.v.? I could churn out similar work twice a week without much effort at all.

The two "conservatives," Brooks and Tierney," round out the pack. Tierney has a lot to prove, and I don't much like his stuff so far, but Brooks deserves better. I suspect this has more to do with the biases of Chatterbox's "liberal" readership than with his merits as a columnist. All I can say is that he's a conservative whom liberals should take seriously.

And that's it. Save up your hard-earned cash, or these giants of the American political commentariat will be lost to you forever. Which may or may not be such a bad thing.

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The Devil and Mr. Norquist (and Mr. Abramoff, and Mr. DeLay)

One more reason to like John McCain (even if you're a die-hard Democrat): It looks like Grover Norquist, rabid anti-tax crusader and revoltingly partisan Republican activist, is getting dragged into the whole Abramoff-DeLay scandal -- the Times reports here. To quote The Beatles, way out of context, this is getting better all the time...

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Sunday, May 22, 2005

Fare(not)well to Karimov: It's time to cut the ties, for good

As I've already argued in this space, America's continuing alliance, such as it is, with Uzbekistan -- specifically with the tyrannical Karimov regime -- is deplorable. I appreciate the realist argument that it is sometimes necessary to support an otherwise reprehensible regime if it somehow contributes to national self-interest. The Cold War was very much fought on this realist basis of international relations -- with the U.S. supporting, for example, Noriega's Panama, or non-regimes like the mujahadeen in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan -- and it will no doubt continue to be necessary to align with various illiberal non-democracies in order to counter both state-less international terrorism and the inevitable rise of China as a serious challenger to American interests in the decades to come. However, as Kaplan persuasively argues in Slate -- and, as usual, I find myself in agreement with him, not least because he backs up my argument -- it's time to cut the ties to Karimov:

Let's just get out of Uzbekistan.

President Bill Clinton struck up a relationship with Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov to stave off the common threat from Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban. After Sept. 11, President Bush tightened the alliance. Karimov supplied the CIA and the Pentagon with an air base, which served as the staging area for the invasion of neighboring Afghanistan. During that war, he also allowed the United States to set up listening posts and to launch Predator drones from Uzbek territory.

All this was justifiable, in the interests of national security, despite Karimov's dreadful human rights record. Now the cost-benefit balance has shifted. The air base remains useful for the continuing operations in Afghanistan, but it's not essential; bases elsewhere in the region (for instance, in the slightly less deplorable Kyrgyzstan) would be suitable, if not quite as convenient. The only other element of our "strategic partnership" with Karimov is the use of his prisons as outsourced detention camps, where torture can be inflicted without direct U.S. involvement; but this is a loathsome business that should be stopped in any event...

It is worth emphasizing here that Muslims comprise 88 percent of Uzbekistan's population. Some of them are fundamentalists in league with the likes of al-Qaida. (During the time of the Taliban, they crossed the border to attend Bin Laden's training camps.) Karimov has used the threat from such groups as an excuse for his crackdowns; he has cited the crackdowns as evidence of his key role in the war on terrorism and, thus, as justification for requests of U.S. assistance. The threat is neither new nor entirely contrived. Even during Soviet days, Moscow's overarching policy toward Uzbekistan—and the other predominantly Muslim republics in central Asia—was to snuff out the slightest reawakening of Islamic consciousness. Karimov rules by the same fear, and not without reason; not long ago, he was nearly assassinated by Islamist radicals. But, as his regime has dragged on, and as its corruption and cruelty have grown, he has come to label all opponents, critics, or potential sources of independent power as terrorists—and treated them accordingly.

And now we know just what a mass murderer Karimov is, with hundreds of innocent civilians dying at the hands of his oppressive rule (masquerading as anti-terrorism). If America stands for anything that is noble and just -- and I believe that it does -- then it should no longer stand with Karimov.

It's time for Bush to put his diplomacy where his mouth is.

UPDATE: The latest in the Times (click here): "[I]t appears that a poorly conceived armed revolt to Mr. Karimov's centralized government set off a local popular uprising that ended in horror when the Uzbek authorities suppressed a mixed crowd of escaped prison inmates and demonstrators with machine-gun and rifle fire... The scale of death is fiercely contested. Mr. Karimov said 32 Uzbek troops and 137 other people had been killed. An opposition party says that at least 745 civilians died in Andijon and Pakhtaabad, a border town, the next day. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, a Vienna-based group, says Uzbek troops may have killed 1,000 unarmed people." Read on, it's an ugly story.

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Back to the blogosphere...

Dear Readers,

Well, I'm back from a three-day mini-vacation in Prince Edward Island, one of the most beautiful spots in the world and one that holds a good deal of meaning for me -- I spent my summers there growing up and I still have loads of family there. It was great to get out of Toronto, to clear my head, and even to get away from The Reaction -- just to keep things in perspective. I didn't even go near a computer the whole time I was there. But it's good to be back, and I'll crank up The Reaction again tonight. So keep coming back for my 2-3 posts a day, or more, on a variety of topics that, I hope, will keep you all interested and eager for more. There's way too much madness in the world, but I'll continue to do my best to put it in its rightful place.

Sincerely,

MJWS

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Thursday, May 19, 2005

The greed of the Times: All the news that's fit to pay for?

As you may already have heard, The New York Times -- the greatest newspaper in the history of the world (insert appropriate sarcasm here) -- will soon be adopting a subscription-based service (TimesSelect) for its Op-Ed columns and online archives, as well as for other sundry features. The rest of the online version will remain free -- thank God! -- but, as of September, it'll cost $49.95 per year for those features. Now, I think this is a terrible idea. It may or not be a good business idea, but, for my purposes, what it means is that The Reaction will no longer be able to link to those formidable Op-Ed columnists. Unless I buy the subscription, which, given my current mood, seems unlikely. More, bloggers generally won't be able to link to them, and I doubt that many bloggers will shell out $49.95 when so much else is available for free on the internet. The Washington Post and the other (L.A.) Times, for example, not to mention the blogosphere itself. Admittedly, I did buy the online subscription to The New Republic, but that's the exception. I stopped reading Time when it went to subscription, and I only read The Globe and Mail, Canada's leading newspaper, because we have a subscription at my office.

Anyway, Timothy Noah, who writes Slate's Chatterbox column, came up with an interesting game. He calculated that the value of the Op-Ed column feature of TimesSelect is about half of the subscription price, or $25 -- the online archive is worth the other half (the other features, such as video, are, in his view, worthless). So that means that $25 may be divided among the columnists themselves, namely, David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman, Bob Herbert, Nicholas Kristof, Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, and John Tierney. The average would $3.13. But, as Noah puts it, they're "a pretty uneven bunch". So he invited readers to submit their allocations. I'd likely prefer to keep my $25, but here's what I came up with:

Brooks: $2.55 -- A decent conservative and a respectable Republican, at least, and capable of dialogue with the other side. I've heard more than enough about the exurbs, and he does tend to exaggerate from time to time, not least when, in a recent column (which I would have to pay for now, since older columns aren't free), he claimed that the Republicans' electoral success is very much a reflection of the diversity of the conservative movement. Well, sort of. But not really. At least he's consistently interesting.

Dowd: $1.15 -- Behold, her shtick is dead. That's what a complete lack of originality will do to you. I used to like her, back when her shtick was new to me, and, as a Kerry supporter, I found her humorous deconstruction of the Bushies last year to be more than a little amusing. But how often can you make fun of Wolfowitz's name and parody Cheney's Dr. Evil persona and analyze Bush's Freudian insecurities before it all just gets boring? Well, it's boring. Period.

Friedman: $4.40 -- A must-read, if only for the talking points of the day (geo-green, flat earth, etc.). He's a liberal who irritates liberals, but that's probably a good thing. There's a lot of name-dropping, and his columns all follow the same simplistic formula, but, in the end, he's an engaging and at times fascinating writer who sheds light on some pretty complex issues. Like a few of his colleagues, the I-know-best arrogance seeps through (more like a flood, sometimes), though I suspect that that comes with the territory (who wouldn't be immodest as a Times columnist?), and at least he can back it up with his impressive knowledge of the global stage.

Herbert: $1.45 -- Even if you agree with him, there's just nothing at all inspiring there, just some old-school liberalism and a self-righteous sense of social justice. He'd be fine at the Post, where he could blend in among a number of diverse columnists, but at the Times he just sticks out for his mediocrity. I'd like to give him more, but I just can't.

Kristof: $4.30 -- Profoundly arrogant, almost a one-man American conscience, but he brings attention to where it is needed most, the forgotten parts of the world that lack much of a voice. His columns on Darfur earlier this year were particularly impressive -- and truly terrifying. He's not as good when he turns back to the domestic scene, but he's a solid international reporter.

Krugman: $4.35 -- Repetitive and at times unduly pessimistic, but his analytical efforts are nothing if not admirable. I particularly liked his columns on Bush's Texas days last year -- it's amazing to me how Bush has managed to avoid serious investigations into his repeated failures in the oil industry, his association with Enron-like accounting practices, his rescue by poppy's buddies, and the various shenanigans that surrounded his ownership of the Texas Rangers. If I were an economist, I might appreciate Krugman even more, but, as it is, I try to read him fairly often. Click here for more.

Rich: $6.75 -- Brilliant cultural exegesis, whatever his critics say. The best of the Times and the columnist whose work I look forward to more than any other in any publication. I do acknowledge that he occasionally descends into repetition, one-sidedness, and an excessive effort to drive his points home, but these flaws do not detract from the high-level interdisciplinary fusion he regularly brings to his columns. It's good to see him back on the Op-Ed page. I had thought of allocating him an even $20 -- he's that good -- but I need to be fair to his colleagues. Click here for more.

Tierney: $0.05 -- He's got a lot to prove. Is it too late to bring Safire back? At least he had something to say.

In the end, much of it comes down to personal preference (of course). I prefer cultural criticism to economics and international affairs, and that means allocating more to Rich than to, say, Krugman and Friedman. I don't know, can I live without my weekly dose of Frank Rich? It'll be tough. I'll just have to decide if he and his lesser colleagues are worth the $49.95.

What a stupid, stupid thing to do.

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I say nuclear, you say nucular: Let's call the whole thing off!

So the filibuster battle begins. More to the point, the battle over Bush's more extreme judicial nominees begins. The Democrats threaten to filibuster, the Republicans threaten to go nuclear, and the Democrats may shut down the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist argues that Bush's nominees "deserve an up-or-down vote on [the] floor," meaning a simple majority vote that his party would win, and that Democrats are engaging in "unprecedented" obstructionism. Meanwhile, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter claims that this obstructionism is revenge for Republican opposition to some of Clinton's more objectionable nominees -- though he at least has the good sense to blame both parties for the filibuster escalation of the past two decades.

But let's consider the facts, not the spurious claims someone like Frist (who had the gall to diagnose Terri Schiavo by video and who is now more insanely partisan than ever): The Democrats have only filibustered ten of Bush's 229 judicial nominees. Of those ten, seven have been renominated. That means that 219 of Bush's nominees were acceptable enough to Democrats that they declined to filibuster -- meaning that they essentially permitted 219 of Bush's 229 nominees to be confirmed. Surely Democrats didn't like all 219 of those nominees -- most of them, now confirmed federal judges, are well to the right of most Democrats -- but they did not block them through parliamentary procedure. So despite Frist's exaggerated rhetoric, backed up by many in his caucus, this is all about a small majority of Bush's nominees. Which means that something must distinguish those ten -- now seven -- from the rest. It can't be judicial conservatism -- most of them are conservative, which is why Bush nominated them in the first place. No, what distinguishes these seven, the Odious Seven, is their extremism. Republicans are trying to turn the filibuster battle into a debate over procedure, deftly labelling Democrats as obstructionists, but what matters here are the nominees themselves. Democrats can stand up and defend the filibuster, even if it was once used by segregationists to block civil rights legislation, but they should be focusing their attention, not to mention the attention of the media, on the nominees themselves. (See a previous post here.)

One of those nominees is Priscilla Owen, a justice on the Texas Supreme Court. What makes her so extreme that Democrats would filibuster her nomination? For more on this, see this 2002 piece by Jason Zengerle in The New Republic. Essentially, Owen is "an anti-abortion zealot" whose views place her on the far right of the already right-wing Texas Supreme Court (the nine justices are all Republicans), and it seems that she has been nominated precisely because of her anti-abortion zealotry. Of course, most of Bush's nominees are pro-life, which means that Democrats have already acquiesced to the confirmation of pro-life nominees, but Owen's extremism sets her apart. Indeed, Zengerle notes that "her anti-abortion fervor distinguished her from even her conservative colleagues," often in parental-notification cases where she was the lone dissenter. In one such case, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, then White House counsel, referred to her position as an "unconscionable act of judicial activism".

(Don't Republicans and conservatives claim to be against judicial activism? Isn't that one of Frist's causes these days, kissing up to the evangelical right? Well, it seems to be allowed when it's activism by the right, of the right, and for the right. Can you say... hypocrisy?)

The other six nominees are very much like Owen, which is why they, too, may soon face the filibuster -- or pass through the nuclear winter that could soon envelop the Senate. Right now, the debate is about the filibuster, and I'm sure the Republicans want to keep it that way. But the Democrats need to expose these nominees for what they are and to face the Republicans on the battlefield of ideas. Yes, they should filibuster. Yes, they should defend the filibuster. But, in the end, the votes will come down to the nominees themselves. Years from now, when they're sitting on the federal benches, the matter of how they were confirmed will be far less important than the damage they've done to America's institutions, public and private, through their right-wing activism. They need to be blocked. If that ultimately fails, Democrats need to take their case to the American people, who may just reject the encroaching extremism of the Republican Party.

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