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


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?)


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.



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