Saturday, August 20, 2005

Four more years! Four more years!

For the U.S. Army in Iraq, that is. On Saturday, Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker admitted that the army is planning to keep at least 100,000 troops in Iraq for at least the next four years. Planning may not be reality, of course, as Bush may -- as I anticipate he will -- withdraw a significant number of troops prior to next year's mid-term elections,* but those who actually know what's going on in Iraq, or at least those who face up to what's really going on and therefore avoid the self-inflicted state of denial that seems to have engulfed the White House, are clearly preparing for the worst... And it's good to know that they are, given that "the worst" may very well turn out to be what actually happens.

* Clearly, the Bush Administration is in the process, once again, of shifting rhetorical course without trying to draw attention to what it's doing, namely, abdicating responsibility for its actions (you know, the whole invasion, regime-change, occupation thing). Pay attention to the rhetoric: Iraq has suddenly become an Iraqi problem, a problem that Iraqis themselves need to work out. Oh, really? Doesn't this mean that the withdrawal has already started? Isn't this just the exit strategy in action? Sure. Once the Iraqis finalize their constitution, and once that constitution is (somehow) ratified, the U.S. can get out. Job (not-so-)well done. For if Iraq then descends into chaos and anarchy, or perhaps morphs into an Iran-style theocracy, well, it's the Iraqis' fault, is it not? That's what the Bush Administration will want you to believe.

Just don't believe it. Make sure the buck stops where it belongs: in Bush's lap.

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Bankrupt nation: When Republicans wage class warfare on the middle class

Oh, yes, this is a lovely story in the Times:

Rushing to beat an October deadline when the biggest overhaul of the bankruptcy law in a quarter century goes into effect, rising numbers of Americans have filed for protection in the four months since the law was changed, seeking to have their debts erased.

Since President Bush signed the new law in April, bankruptcy filings have jumped, particularly in the heartland. Filings in the four months through July are up 17 percent this year over last in Cleveland, 14 percent in Milwaukee and 22 percent in northern Iowa, according to court filings, matching similar patterns in the Midwest and parts of the South and rural West.

Nationwide, bankruptcy filings for April, May and June were up by 12 percent over the same period last year, according to LexisNexis, the data collection service, which tracks filings ahead of the quarterly reporting done by the federal courts. The rise is coming after bankruptcy had leveled off and even started a slight decline last year.

I'm all for personal responsibility, and it's clear that spending in America -- both private and public -- is out of control, but I'm just not so sure that legislation designed to satisfy the insurance companies, and to deny legal protection to Americans who can barely make ends meet as it is, is really the way to go. Yes, people do need to spend less and save more, but how exactly are they supposed to do that when many of them are losing their jobs and facing calamitous health costs? Bankruptcy shouldn't be an easy way out, but nor should it be denied as a last-ditch recourse to responsible people who just end up drowning in debt.

It's class warfare. And, needless to say, it's wrong. Go ahead and thank President Bush (he of Andover, Yale, and Harvard education; he who was rescued time and again from business busts by Poppy's friends in Texas) and your friendly Republican-controlled Congress.

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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Sign of the Apocalypse #14: The era of Diddy

As you know, I do this series here at The Reaction called "Signs of the Apocalypse" (see the right sidebar for all the links). But when I hear about stories like this one -- and Jon Stewart subjected it to his acute sarcasm the other night on The Daily Show -- I'm tempted to revert back to the original name I had for the series: "What the fuck?"

I mean, does anyone care? Well, surely some do. And surely I'm wasting a good post at The Reaction by even referring to it -- and while on vacation, for God's sake!

So what is it, you ask? Well, it concerns that icon of American culture, Sean Combs.

Surely you've heard of Mr. Combs. Perhaps you know him as Puff Daddy. Or Puffy. Or P. Diddy. Or that guy next to Jennifer Lopez (a.k.a., J-Lo).

Well, stop the presses. Stop the rotation of the earth and its annual orbit around the sun. Mr. Combs announced on Tuesday's Today Show -- which means it's official, of course -- that he'd like henceforth to be known as...


Yup. Diddy.

Why, you ask? Well -- if I may quote Diddy himself:

"I felt like the 'P' was getting between me and my fans, and now we're closer. During concerts, half the crowd is saying 'P. Diddy,' half the crowd is chanting 'Diddy' -- now everybody can just chant 'Diddy'. Yeah, sure. Or did it have more to do with a sagging career and the need to remain in the spotlight by creating false news. I mean, come on, closer to his fans? Have you ever seen the guy, his entourage, and the wall of bling that separates him from reality? But I quote on: "I even started to get confused myself -- and when I'd called someone on the telephone it took me a long time to explain who I was. Too long. One word. Five letters. Period." Now my head hurts. Must be all that confusion. "To be honest, the unveiling of Diddy -- you gonna see that at the VMAs. You gonna see that in the entrance. You gonna see that swagger. You gonna see how I'm gonna navigate you through the journey. I'm gonna play my position, my role. The artists are gonna play their role. We're gonna have an incredible, incredible party." Role? What role? Journey? What journey?

Yes, in his own words, "the era of Diddy" is upon us.

But is he serious? Is any of this serious? And why are people actually taking him seriously? Why are the media giving him a platform from which to spew such outrageous nonsense? For how is this news? Even the lowest of lowbrow celebrity-oriented news? Shouldn't someone go to the window and shout, "I'm as annoyed as hell by this cynical, manipulative bullshit, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

Come on, do it. For all that is good and decent and honest and real in the world.

Because -- and I apologize for being so crass -- what the fuck?

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A New Moscow-Beijing Axis?

The Globe and Mail is reporting that the Chinese and Russian armies are conducting large-scale joint military exercises this week along their Manchurian-Siberian frontier in a sign of the growing rapprochement between the two traditionally hostile neighbours.

The exercises are being sold as a anti-terrorism drill, although the presence of heavy weaponry at the exercises seems to suggest that it's more of an opportunity to practice warfighting technique than it is to try out the latest in counter-insurgency techniques.

I'm sure that most security analysts in Washington are probably wetting their pants at this latest indication that China and Russia are building a countervailing alliance against the United States in an attempt to usher in a new multipolar world order, but the worry warts and the chicken hawks would be well advised to take a valium and relax for at least 3 reasons.

First, when it comes to conventional warfighting capability, China and Russia have a long way to go before they're any match for the United States, which despite the humiliation its army is currently experiencing in Iraq, is still unsurpassed in its ability to fight and win a major war. Indeed, the entire reason the Iraqi campaign is going so poorly is that it's precisely the kind of war that the American army is ill-equipped to fight, whereas a major confrontation with another state actor has always been an American speciality.

Second, the timeless logic of international politics suggests that Russia and China are never likely to be more than uneasy allies given that they both pose each other's greatest security threat. The Sino-Soviet alliance against the West struck shortly after the Communists won the Chinese civil war lasted less than 20 years before Chinese and Soviet soldiers were taking pot shots at each other over the Amur Darya river that demarcates the frontier between Siberia and Manchuria. In the absence of an "existential threat," to use Krauthammer's phrase, of a superior power to keep the lid on their security competition (as the U.S. did in Europe by holding France and Germany together in NATO), or of major ideational change, any Sino-Russian rapprochement is likely to be only tentative and half-hearted.

Third, neither China nor Russia have any major interest in banding together to face down the United States or engineering a major change in the configuration of the current world order because of their mutual interest in ensuring the economic health of the United States for their own domestic reasons. Without the United States to sop Russian oil and Chinese manufactured goods, both neighbours would experience sharp economic downturns that they would rather avoid, plus they wouldn't be able to cash in on the huge U.S. dollar reserves they've been accumulating as the Americans run up a massive trade deficit. If they ever want to be paid back, they'd better play nicely.

Should I turn out to be wrong about all of this, however, and should the Chinese and the Russians somehow manage to turn their dalliance into a stable alliance that slowly becomes a contender for superpower status, I would still argue that the United States has nothing to fear from a situation from renewed multipolarity. Frankly, unipolarity has been more trouble than it's been worth for the Americans, who as the only country with any claim to superpowerdom has had to shoulder the "hegemon's burden" of maintaining order in every corner of the world. Plus they haven't exactly done a good job of it either, alienating all manner of potential allies and destroying rather than creating new institutions that will preserve their preferences well into the future after the inevitable rise of geopolitical competitors. As with anything else, competition forces people to do better and think smarter, and American foreign policy today is in desperate need of those very attributes.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Krauthammer at War (or is that at sea?)

Charles Krauthammer, the Pulitzer-winning Washington Post columnist and dean of the non-blotospheric neoconservative commentariat, has written an absolutely infuriating article for Commentary Magazine which demonstrates the absolute hubris and arrogance of the neocon clique that have got America into its current mess in Iraq.

Entitled "The Neoconservative Convergence," the article has Krauthammer displaying breathtaking chutzpah in declaring neoconservatism one of the three great major American schools of foreign policy-making, when really it is just the bastard child of every previous approach held together with a large dollop of political expediency.
  • From classical realism, neoconservatism has inherited an elitist bent that is strikingly at odds with the open spirit of democratic dialogue that used to be America's greatest civic virtue, at least until the neocons came along and got Fox News to declare anyone opposing them a traitor.
  • From liberal internationalism, neoconservatives have acquired the delusional belief that the American model is the panacea to all the world's problems and that the attractions of the model are such that people will embrace it with open arms if only the United States gives them the chance by making the world for peace. (This leads to the obvious rejoinder of why the United States needs to go through all that trouble to force others to embrace something so appealing, but I digress).
  • And from isolationism, neo-conservatism inherits its dim view of foreign entanglements, foreign trade, and any foreign treaties that prevent the United States from doing what it wants, when it wants.
What really gets me about Krauthammer's article, however, is the ease with which his defense of the Bush Doctrine, namely that security comes only from democracy which comes only from the barrel of a gun, turns into a spirited apologia for American pussy-footing with nasty regimes in other parts of the world. Krauthammer writes:
In the absence of omnipotence, one must deal with the lesser of two evils. That means postponing radically destabilizing actions in places where the support of the current non-democratic regime is needed against a larger existential threat to the free world.
Isn't this precisely the credo of the realists, whose belief in maintaining the balance of power led them to play all sorts of games where the enemies of our enemies became our friends to avert the greater of two evils? Aren't these precisely the kinds of games that the neocons foreswore in the aftermath of 9/11, when an enemy of a former enemy became public enemy number one? And wouldn't Krauthammer's injunction against "destabilizing actions in places where the support of the current non-democratic regime is needed against a larger existential threat" rule out the blundering invasion of a deeply divided country that was only held together by the iron fist of a despot, located at the heart of the world's most volatile tinderbox?

George Bush the elder had it quite right in 1998 when he responded to the taunts of the chicken hawks for not finishing the job in the First Gulf War thus:
We should not march into Baghdad. . . . To occupy Iraq would instantly shatter our coalition, turning the whole Arab world against us, and make a broken tyrant into a latter-day Arab hero . . . assigning young soldiers to a fruitless hunt for a securely entrenched dictator and condemning them to fight in what would be an unwinnable urban guerrilla war. It could only plunge that part of the world into even greater instability.
The prophecy of the father has come to pass. Let's hope the son now has the courage to take a pass on Krauthammer's view of the world.

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Gaza's Bulldozer of Peace

I've got to say that I've been transfixed today by the images coming out of the Gaza Strip of the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from that most miserable of occupied territories. I've long been a pessimist about the solubility of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, largely because of the seeming omnipresence of hardliners on both sides who in spite of all reason persist in maintaining that some dusty hillock or field is the land given to them by their God and shall be never taken away from them. Today's events, however, show that demonstration of resolve and determination can overcome even the most irrational of fundamentalisms to move a trouble region a small step down the road towards peace.

As much as I am loath to heap any praise on Ariel Sharon, who we must remember is the one who set off the current intifada in 2000 with his provocative visit to the Temple Mount, amongst other sins, today he showed both how politics really is the art of the possible, and how sometimes it just takes a "bulldozer" to get anything done in the Middle East.

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Homeland insecurity: Vandalism at Camp Casey

No matter your position on Iraq -- and, indeed, there are many possible positions to take, not just the for/against poles of extremism -- can we not all agree that this latest incident at Camp Casey, Cindy Sheehan's encampment near Bush's ranch in Texas, is truly disgusting?

(I'm somewhat mixed on Sheehan -- or, at least, on what she represents. I certainly don't think that parental emotion should govern American foreign policy, but is there any more powerful emotion? And while it's true that one of the costs of war, the most enormous cost of all, is the loss of life, whether military or civilian, it surely isn't right for life to be sacrificed for a cause that isn't just. And that's what this comes down to. Is the Iraq War, now more of an occupation than a full-out war, just? I don't have the answer, but it may be enough, at present, just to ask the question.

Regardless, I find myself, as usual, somewhere in the middle. As I've mentioned here a number of times, I was for the war... well, before I was against it, if I may pull a Kerry. Like many hawkish liberals, I believed that war was necessary, given what I knew at the time. And now? Well, the war/occupation has gone horribly wrong, and we're left with something resembling a quagmire -- a difficult situation from which it will be difficult to pull out. But it's imperative to deal with the facts as they are. And the central fact is that the U.S. invaded Iraq, toppled Saddam's regime, and is now occupying the country even as a new, democratic regime struggles to secure legitimacy and long-term viability amid a bloody insurgent backlash. The loss of life has indeed been a truly horrendous cost, and I can barely imagine the enormity of Ms. Sheehan's pain and suffering (even as I admire her courage and passion), but, to me, the job needs to be finished -- that is, Iraq needs to be stabilized -- before any significant withdrawal can be considered. Lest Iraq (and perhaps much of the Middle East) descend into chaos. And that, I'm afraid, would turn out to be a lot worse than the gross injustices of this war.)

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Monday, August 15, 2005

Powering the Future

At the risk of sounding like Tom Friedman, I thought I'd point out two interesting articles I came across today about two simple ideas that might help our society break its addiction to fossil fuels.

The first is a story from CNN on how a bunch of tinkerers working in their garages have figured how to get between 80 and 250 miles to the gallon out of their Toyota Prius hybrids. The trick is to wire up a plug to the car's battery pack so that you can charge it up by plugging it into any ordinary electrical outlet. The juice in the batteries is enough to drive you around ten miles, and on round trips of 20 miles the boost from the fully-charged batteries can drive up the fuel economy to 80 mpg. True, the power in the charged batteries is only as clean as the source of the electricity being used to juice them up, but since the conversion of fossil fuels into electrical energy at a power plant is far more efficient than burning it in your car, there are environmental gains to be had with this simple do-it-yourself hybrid hack.

Our second story comes from bucolic Prince Edward Island, where Michael is currently vacationing (and no doubt enjoying a nice seafood dinner while I am slaving away on maintaining his blog). A small Ontario-based startup called Hydrogenics Corp. is experimenting with a novel system in the village of Sea Cow Pond that aims at eliminating the biggest drawback currently associated with wind power: namely that the juice goes out when the wind stops blowing. The trick to the system is to use any excess power generated when it is good and gusty outside to extract hydrogen from water by electrolysis that can be burned when the winds are calm. One can only dream of the day when the vast deserts of Saudi Arabia are filled solar panels generating electricity to produce hydrogen to burn in the Priuses of America rather than with the dirty and polluting paraphernalia of oil production.

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Rising Sun, Bowing in Apology

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi did the right thing today by abstaining from visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and apologizing for the atrocities committed by Japanese forces during the course of the Second World War on this, the sixtieth anniversary of the war's end in the Pacific.

While the Prime Minister's actions today are a step in the right direction, Japan must do a whole lot more to atone and come to terms with its bloody militaristic past. Like Germany, Japan today may be a vibrant democracy playing a constructive role on the world stage, but the contrast with Germany when it comes to exorcising the demons of the Second World War cannot be greater.

That much is made clear by the fact that convicted war criminals such as General Tojo are still venerated at Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine, and that at least one protester at the shrine today was bloodied today by far-right thugs who had assembled at the shrine to commemorate the anniversary.
One could only imagine the outrage that such veneration for a leading official of the Third Reich at a similar site in Berlin would cause, but in Japan and other parts of the world that were not hurt by its aggression, the attitude to the country's refusal to acknowledge the darkest episodes in its history is largely one of indifference.

That's something that should not be sitting well with anyone on this anniversary of the end of a war, the likes of which we hope to never see again.

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Sunday, August 14, 2005

Designer Vaginas -- The 13th Sign of the Apocalypse?

Now here's a sure sign that the apocalypse is fast approaching. Yesterday's Globe and Mail has a feature article about the growing practice of women having plastic surgery done to their vaginas in an attempt to improve their aesthetic appeal and to "tighten" them to enhance their own and their partners' sexual pleasure. Apparently many of these women are walking into their local cosmetic surgeon's office clutching clippings from pornographic magazines depicting the ideal vagina that they would like to have, and some girls as young as fifteen are coming in with their mothers to have their vaginas altered.

Now I know that Michael has blogged about the epidemic of breast augmentation surgeries occurring these days despite the known risks posed by implants leaking, but truly that women are now feeling compelled to have the most private part of their body surgically altered, presumably to meet societal expectations of what's beautiful and what's not, is tremendously disturbing. It says something about the pervasiveness of pornography in our society and our insecurities about how we look that women today would go to such lengths to have their most intimate places "beautified." God only knows what's coming down the pipeline.

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The United States and the Rule of Law I: The Case of Maher Arar

For a country that elevates its Constitution to something akin to a sacred secular text, Americans can be rather casual in defending the principles of their founding document from a meddlesome and opportunistic government in Washington.

This week, lawyers for the Department of Justice argued in a New York courtroom that the unalienable rights which Americans believe to have been endowed to all men by their creator cannot be claimed by international air passengers transiting through American airports, or by any other non-citizen standing on American territory who has not yet been granted formal entry into the United States. In other words, the Department of Justice believes that America's airports, seaports, and border crossings are Constitution-free zones when it comes to the rights of non-citizens, where agents of the government may do whatever they like to foreigners without any regard for the supreme law of the land.

The context for these unsettling revelations are a federal judicial hearing into a wrongful imprisonment lawsuit brought by Maher Arar against former Attorney-General John Ashcroft and several other senior federal law enforcement officials and agencies. For those of you who haven't heard of Maher Arar (and the odds are that you probably haven't if you're reading this from outside of Canada), he is a Syrian-born Canadian citizen who was detained by immigration authorities at New York's JFK Airport for a fortnight in the fall of 2002 on suspicions that he was a member of Al Qaeda. During his time in American custody, Arar was denied his constitutional right to legal representation, his common law habeas corpus right to know the accusations against him, and his right as a foreign citizen to assistance from Canadian consular officials under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1961 -- a treaty to which the United States is a signatory.

What is much worse, however, is that the United States decided to deport Arar to his native Syria without any due process of law, and without informing the Canadian authorities of their intention to do so despite the requirements of international law. The term deportation is somewhat of a misnomer, however, for one is usually deported to one's home country rather than to a third country, which Syria has been for Arar since he renounced his citizenship there to become a Canadian citizen.

Since the United States does not have an extradition treaty with Syria, the only reasonable conclusion is that Arar was a victim of the United States government's "extraordinary rendition" policy whereby terrorism suspects are "rendered" to third countries where coercive interrogation policies are more tolerated than in the land of the free. Arar's treatment by the Syrians certainly bears this out, for during his year in captivity there he was held in a closet-sized jail cell and repeatedly tortured until he was finally forced to sign a false confession that he was a member of Al Qaeda and that he had received terrorist instruction at their infamous training camps in Afghanistan. After a public outcry in Canada and a vocal campaign by his wife protesting his innocence and seeking his release, Arar was sent back to Canada as a "gesture of goodwill to the Canadian people" after he had endured a year's detention in a Syrian jail.

Every aspect of Arar's story is deeply troubling and raises difficult questions about our current willingness to limit civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism. What is most galling, however, is the eagerness with which American government officials are willing to overthrow a Constitutional order that has served the United States so well for over two centuries, in order to defeat an enemy which in the historical scale of things (remember the USSR?) poses a pretty minor threat to the security of the nation.

The Constitution's guarantees of individual freedom are not to be toyed with lightly, and those who seek to evade its authority for a minor advantage in the War on terror have no idea of the implications that their clever arguments in the Arar case will have on the freedom of all Americans should the court accept their treacherous arguments.

If the Federal Court in New York finds that foreign citizens standing on U.S. soil who have not yet been granted formal entry clearance into the country by an immigration officer are outside the writ of the Constitution, what is to stop the authorities from declaring that all who have entered into the U.S. illegally have no constitutional rights whatsoever because they too have no proper entry clearance? Will we soon see Mexican migrants denied their right to legal representation should they run into trouble with the criminal law because they are not in the United States legally? And what is to stop the government from using this thin edge of a wedge to claim the right to render American citizens to less than savory foreign jurisdictions some day when they attempt to enter the United States, claiming that they too have no Constitutional rights despite their citizenship for they too have not yet been granted formal entry clearance into the country?

In my view, all of this nonsense is a result of an incorrect reading of the Constitution by the powers that be at the Department of Justice which sees the document as endowing certain enumerated classes of individuals with rights, rather than acting as a bulwark against the infringement of the rights enumerated in the Constitution by a hyperactive and over reactive government.

The language of the Constitution, and of the Bill of Rights in particular, is replete with the notion of the people being free to do certain kinds of things (like speaking their minds and owning guns) without the government trampling all over those rights, and without anywhere enumerating what classes of people may legitimately enjoy those rights. Nowhere does it say in the Constitution, for example, that the 19th century concept of American citizenship is a necessary precondition for the enjoyment of the rights the founders laid down at the end of the 18th century.

This view of the Constitution as a constraint on government action, inasmuch as it confers rights on the people, leads to the conclusion that all government actions ought to be subject to the writ of the Constitution, so long as those actions take place in a place where the writ of the United States government applies. In the Arar case, the Homeland Security officials who administer airport security at Kennedy Airport are operating on the territory of the United States to enforce the law of the United States. What’s so special about this situation that it ought to be exempted from the purview of the Supreme Law of the Land?

In fighting the good fight against terrorism or anything else, the means we use are just as important as our ends, for if we resort to the means of our enemy in fighting them, we shall have lost the very things we were fighting for. The U.S. risks suffering such a pyrrhic victory in its fight against terrorism should it resort to extra-judicial means in doing so as in the Arar case, when it claims that the Constitution does not apply.

It is time that the United States stopped bullying innocent people and that it starts playing by its own rules that have served it so well for so long.

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Greetings from the guest blogger

I'd like to begin by thanking Michael for this wonderful opportunity to guest blog at The Reaction while he's away on vacation. Michael has built The Reaction into a daily must-read in just a few short months, and I hope that I don't alienate too many of his regular readers during my week at the help with my more-liberal-than-moderate take on the world! As Michael mentioned in his introductory message, I am a regular blogger over at the Dominion Wine and Cheese Society, with which I will be cross-posting during my ten-day stint at The Reaction, save for the real foodie articles. And now, without any further ado, let the fireworks begin!

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