Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 31, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DONATE NOW....The Red Cross Online Donation Page is here. Please go donate some money.

You can also donate by phone:


If you want to donate to a different charity, there are lots to choose from. California Yankee has a comprehensive list.

Kevin Drum 8:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MAYOR: "MOST LIKELY THOUSANDS" DEAD IN NEW ORLEANS....If this turns out to be right, it's truly unbelievable:

"We know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water," and others dead in attics, Mayor Ray Nagin said. He estimated that at least hundreds had died and "most likely, thousands."

Even as they made plans to effectively empty this city, officials today began to set up a temporary morgue. Nagin said there are significant numbers of bodies floating in the water and many more are believed to be dead inside the attics of houses.

"Do the math," he said.

Good Lord. Thousands?

UPDATE: From comments:

This afternoon Blitzer had the guy from LSU on whose team has been computer modeling this disaster. So far, the guy said that their modeling has been right on. He said that the model predicts that one third of the some 250,000 people who stayed in New Orleans were killed.

This can't be true. It just can't be.

Kevin Drum 8:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH AND KATRINA....As Laura Rozen points out, even George Bush's defenders over at National Review think his reaction to Hurricane Katrina has been oddly detached from reality. I have to agree. While New Orleans was undergoing a slow motion catastrophe on Monday and Tuesday, Bush was mugging for the cameras, cutting a cake for John McCain, playing the guitar for Mark Wills, delivering an address about V-J day, and continuing with his vacation. Then, on Wednesday, when he finally got around to saying something, it turned out to be a flat, defensive, laundry list of a speech.

These are not the actions of a president in touch with the country especially a president who usually excels at reacting to tragedies like this. When you put this together with his increasingly robotic speeches about progress in Iraq, his tone deaf reaction to Cindy Sheehan's vigil, and the continuing meltdown in public support for the war, I think that for the first time in his presidency Bush has found himself in a corner he doesn't know how to get out of. And it's showing.

Kevin Drum 8:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

OPPOSING THE WAR....Via the Carpetbagger, here's an interesting poll graphic from the Washington Post. A huge majority of Democrats think that congressional Dems have been too timid in opposing the Iraq war, and a solid majority of independents feel the same way. Even one in five Republicans think Democrats should be more forceful.

The demographic breakdown is here. If you do the arithmetic, 53% of all Americans think that congressional Democrats should oppose the war more forcefully. Only 37% think they've gone too far.

Kevin Drum 7:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IGNORANCE....OK, so 42% of poll respondents believe that life on earth has "existed in its present form since the beginning of time." That's obviously very bad.

On the other hand, 25% of adults think the sun orbits around the earth. Which is worse?

Kevin Drum 3:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON?....Back in 1995, Danny Franklin wrote a piece in the Washington Monthly about the travails of FEMA, an agency that had an abominable reputation for poor planning and bureaucratic incompetence in the 80s and early 90s:

FEMA was, in the words of former advisory board member and defense analyst Lawrence Korb, a "political dumping ground," a backwater reserved for political contributors or friends with no experience in emergency management.

....Because FEMA had 10 times the proportion of political appointees of most other government agencies, the poorly chosen Bush [Sr.] appointees had a profound effect on the performance of the agency. Sam Jones, the mayor of Franklin, Louisiana, says he was shocked to find that the damage assessors sent to his town a week after Hurricane Andrew had no disaster experience whatsoever. "They were political appointees, members of county Republican parties hired on an as-needed basis....They were terribly inexperienced."

In 1992 the GAO recommended sweeping changes in FEMA's mission and organization, and the newly elected Bill Clinton took the GAO's recommendations seriously. The first thing he did was appoint as FEMA's director James Lee Witt, a former construction company owner who had worked with Clinton in Arkansas as director of the state Office of Emergency Services, where he earned high marks for his management of three presidential disaster declarations, including two major floods in 1990 and 1991.

Witt resurrected FEMA's reputation and turned it into a highly respected agency, but via email, Franklin wonders if the widely reported problems regarding federal response to Hurricane Katrina are related to George Bush's rather more patronage minded approach to staffing critical positions:

The difficulties of coordination seem to indicate we've returned to the bad old days where the FEMA administrator position is given away on the basis of political favor, rather than hard experience. The whole story of FEMA's response to Katrina has yet to be written, but it has always troubled me that Bush has appointed, in succession, his 2000 campaign manager and an Oklahoma lawyer whose only emergency management experience prior to joining FEMA was as an assistant city manager.

I hope Franklin is wrong about this, but after hearing one too many stories about unqualified political appointees taking over scientific, technical, and reconstruction positions in the Bush administration, it's hard not to wonder if FEMA hasn't suffered under his administration as well.

UPDATE: More here from Eric Holdeman in the Washington Post:

The advent of the Bush administration in January 2001 signaled the beginning of the end for FEMA. The newly appointed leadership of the agency showed little interest in its work or in the missions pursued by the departed [James Lee] Witt. Then came the Sept. 11 attacks and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Soon FEMA was being absorbed into the "homeland security borg."

This year it was announced that FEMA is to "officially" lose the disaster preparedness function that it has had since its creation. The move is a death blow to an agency that was already on life support. In fact, FEMA employees have been directed not to become involved in disaster preparedness functions, since a new directorate (yet to be established) will have that mission.

Read the whole thing.

Kevin Drum 3:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PLAN B PROMPTS RESIGNATION....Susan Wood, the assistant FDA commissioner for women's health, has resigned in protest over the transparent politicization of the scientific review process for Plan B, the "morning after" pill:

"I can no longer serve as staff when scientific and clinical evidence, fully evaluated and recommended for approval by the professional staff here, has been overuled," she wrote in an e-mail to her staff and FDA colleagues.

....When the FDA rejected the first application last year to make the emergency contraceptive Plan B available without a prescription, officials acknowledged that the science staff had overwhelmingly favored the application.

....[But] opponents...believe that it will encourage teenage promiscuity and that in some cases its mode of action constitutes abortion. Social and religious conservatives flooded the White House with phone calls in the days before [the FDA's] decision.

Wood made the right decision. If the White House or Congress wants to make decisions on moral grounds, that's fine. The FDA, however, should make them solely on scientific grounds. George Bush's FDA is no longer doing that.

Kevin Drum 1:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

SELF-FULFILLING PROPHESY... Just as Iraq was never a central front in the war on terror until we made it so by invading, so too, apparently, is it now a war for oil. At least that's what the president seemed to say in a speech yesterday:

If Zarqawi and bin Laden gain control of Iraq, they would create a new training ground for future terrorist attacks; they'd seize oil fields to fund their ambitions; they could recruit more terrorists by claiming an historic victory over the United States and our coalition.

Paul Glastris 1:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PATENTING THE OBVIOUS....What annoying dreck this is:

Raising another legal threat to the iPod music player, Creative Technology Ltd. said it has been awarded a U.S. patent for a song-navigation technology it claims is used on Apple Computer Inc.'s market-leading devices.

...."Apple tried to claim invention, but this patent dispels that," said Craig McHugh, president of Creative Labs.

And what exactly is the nature of Creative Labs' stunning innovation in menu technology? Here's the claim as stated in U.S. Pat. No. 6,590,730. Read and be amazed:

A method of selecting at least one track from...categories, subcategories, and items respectively in a first, second, and third level of the hierarchy, the method comprising:

selecting a category in the first display screen of the portable media player;

displaying the subcategories belonging to the selected category in a listing presented in the second display screen;

selecting a subcategory in the second display screen;

displaying the items belonging to the selected subcategory in a listing presented in the third display screen; and

accessing at least one track based on a selection made in one of the display screens.

In other words, a menu system in which you choose Artist, then Album, then Track. That sure qualifies as "nonobvious," doesn't it?

Crikey. I know this patent probably isn't enforceable, which means this is more a PR stunt than anything else (which appears to be how Creative Labs is treating it), but still. This idiocy needs to stop.

For some ideas on how to do that, read Zachary Roth's "The Monopoly Factory" from the June issue of the Monthly.

Kevin Drum 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DEATH IN BAGHDAD....First Katrina, now this:

The death toll rose to more than 800 this morning after rumors of a suicide bomber led to a stampede in a vast procession of Shiite pilgrims as they crossed a bridge on their way to a shrine in northern Baghdad.

....The pilgrims were among a throng of hundreds of thousands who had converged on the capital over the preceding day to mark the anniversary of the death of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, one of Shiite Islam's holiest figures.

Fear had begun spreading in the crowd an hour earlier, after insurgents fired rockets and mortars near the shrine, killing seven pilgrims and wounding two dozen, and leading to a counter-attack by American military helicopters.

But the stampede, which caused the greatest one-day loss of life since the American invasion in March 2003, appears to have been caused by unfounded rumors of a man wearing a suicide belt in the crowd.

In the meantime, Taiwan is bracing for a typhoon.

Kevin Drum 11:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

JOHN BOLTON UPDATE....Over at Democracy Arsenal, Suzanne Nossel provides a short but thorough summary of the John Bolton debacle unfolding at the UN. Despite the fact that Condoleezza Rice and her staff have been working on the upcoming UN reform program for months, Bolton has suddenly produced a phone book-size set of amendments at the last minute that basically guts the whole thing:

Contrary to other speculation, the very public Congressional inquiry into Bolton's style and his penchant for antagonizing others does not appear to have prompted any change in approach. Bolton has come out swinging. If his goal was to build support for American positions, Bolton would have worked to quietly build consensus around a handful of the issues considered most important. Instead he's launched a broadside against the whole enterprise of reform, targeting head-on matters that are hot-buttons to most of the membership.

Reed Hundt, who knows Bolton well, was even blunter over at TPMCafe:

I know John Bolton; I went to school with him; I like him personally; his views are sincerely and passionately held....He is the champion of long-held deeply sincere views of the right about the United Nations. The goal is the extinction of the organization;second place is its near-death; third is undermining it so severely as to make its existence irrelevant. The constitutionally permitted time for this ambassador is adequate to make a lot of progress toward these goals given the intelligence, zeal, and energy of the ambassador. Those in the Senate who favor the continuation of the United Nations and a constructive role for the United States in the UN had better act very soon.

I'm not sure I'm quite as pessimistic as Hundt, but then again, I've never met Bolton. He has.

Kevin Drum 12:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 30, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

KATRINA = FETUS?....This may not turn out to be the most offensive conceivable use of Katrina for political ends, but it's definitely in the running. In any case, it's surely the creepiest.

Kevin Drum 8:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A DEFENSE OF CAFE....Over at the Prospect, Matt Yglesias writes about CAFE, the federal standard that mandates minimum levels of fuel economy for cars and light trucks. He doesn't like it. It's true, he says, that part of CAFE's problem is that it largely exempts SUVs from its rules, but there's a broader reason to dislike it too:

Applying tighter rules to cars than to light trucks means that, in effect, CAFE standards are subsidizing the purchase of highly inefficient SUVs, which is the reverse of what we're trying to accomplish. The root of the problem, however, isn't in the ill-designed rules but in the fact that CAFE is trying to tackle the wrong problem.

If you want to reduce gasoline consumption, what you want to do is tax gasoline consumption, not inefficient engines.

This is a very peculiar argument. There are, after all, two ways to decrease gasoline consumption: (1) drive less and (2) drive more efficient cars. Gasoline taxes do indeed provide incentives to do these things, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't add other policy prescriptions into the mix too. In fact, adopting several modest policies is almost always better than putting all your eggs into one gigantic policy basket. So why not do both?

For policy wonks, here's the nickel defense: CAFE was passed in 1975 and mandated an increase in average fuel economy for cars from 18 mpg in 1978 to 27.5 mpg in 1985. The National Academy of Sciences investigated CAFE standards back in 2002 and came to several conclusions. As the chart on the right shows, one of them is that CAFE worked:

The CAFE program has clearly contributed to increased fuel economy of the nation's light-duty vehicle fleet during the past 22 years....If fuel economy had not improved, gasoline consumption (and crude oil imports) would be about 2.8 million barrels per day greater than it is, or about 14 percent of today's consumption.

....Between 1975 and 1984, [automotive] technology improvements were concentrated on fuel economy: It improved 62 percent without any loss of performance....Thereafter, technology improvements were concentrated principally on performance and other vehicle attributes. Fuel economy remained essentially unchanged....

So CAFE does what it was designed to do. What's more, CAFE is almost certainly more effective than gas taxes at reducing gasoline consumption. During the period from 1979-1982, for example, gasoline prices doubled and CAFE standards were rising. The result was a 15% drop in oil consumption worldwide and a drop of about 20% in the United States.

Compare that to 1999-2005: gasoline prices have more than doubled, but gasoline consumption has continued to rise. In fact, it's been rising faster than it did during the 80s and 90s. These two periods aren't strictly comparable (the first one included an oil shock that had a significant psychological impact, while the more recent rise has been slower and steadier), but it's still clear that gasoline demand is pretty inelastic: higher prices by themselves appear to have only a modest impact on gasoline consumption. To make a serious dent in gasoline consumption we'd probably have to increase gas taxes on the order of $2-3 per gallon. That's a mighty blunt instrument.

Instead, a more modest tax increase should be paired with other policy instruments. The NAS report, for example, includes several technical recommendations for improving CAFE, and one very interesting one is the use of tradable fuel economy credits. The federal government would mandate higher CAFE standards, but manufacturers would be able to buy credits either from the government or from other manufacturers who exceeded the minimum standard. This would guarantee an increase in average fuel economy but would allow market-like mechanisms to do a lot of the work that detailed regulations would otherwise do and do it more efficiently.

Bottom line: don't throw out CAFE just yet. Obviously the Bush administration has no interest in any policy designed to seriously reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but that doesn't mean it will never happen. When the time is right, a modified and tightened CAFE regimen is a policy option we should remain open to.

POSTSCRIPT: Or there's always my idea for making the cost of gasoline more obvious to car buyers. It's cheap, too!

Kevin Drum 7:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RESPONDING TO KATRINA....At the risk of sounding overly righteous every time disaster strikes, can I please suggest that Katrina is really not an appropriate subject for partisan jabbing right now? That goes for both left and right.

If you want to help, California Yankee has a comprehensive directory of relief organizations that you can contribute to. The Red Cross is at the top of the list, but there are plenty of others too.

The Red Cross Online Donation Page is here.

You can also donate by phone:


Kevin Drum 3:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KATRINA UPDATE....On Monday it looked like New Orleans had escaped the worst of Hurricane Katrina. Now it looks like the worst just took an extra day to happen:

The sense of relief that residents felt Monday morning when the city was not immediately inundated by a storm surge overflowing its protective levees was replaced late Monday night and Tuesday morning with dread because of a levee that was damaged by the hurricane.

....The damage to the 17th Street Canal and its levee means that the water from Lake Pontchartrain is now free to flow down to inundate hundreds of thousands of homes and other buildings here.

Once it flows in, the water will not drain from New Orleans because of the very levees that protect the city and that largely held during the hurricane. Those levees, built to keep water out, are now keeping the water in, and reports from across the city indicate that water levels are rising.

Authorities plan to use helicopters to drop 3,000-pound sandbags into the breach in the damaged levee, the Associated Press reported. The breach is said to be about 200 feet long. There were reports Tuesday that other levees may also have given way in the hours since the storm passed.

Death tolls are going up, damage estimates have increased to about $25 billion, and it now looks as if New Orleans will be uninhabitable for at least a month.

Kevin Drum 2:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

STRIKE COVERAGE....Brad Plumer is unhappy with media coverage of the Northwestern strike:

Just about every major story I've seen opens with a few cloying paragraphs on how the airline is still running "smoothly" despite those uppity workers causing a big ruckus, then segues into a full swoon over Northwest's ability to keep its stock prices flying as high as its planes, and finally, closes on a note of admiration for the company's oh-so-bold strategy of using scabsahem, "replacement workers"to weather these tough times. And that's just the liberal press.

....A few months ago, I noted something just as appalling going on with the barely-averted BART strike here in San Francisco: In the press, the entire ordeal was cast as a battle between commuters and workersin which the soon-to-be-inconvenienced BART riders heaped aspersions on the "unreasonable" demands of the unionswhile business managed to write itself out of this little drama entirely.

Yep. Strikes aren't actually that common anymore, but when they do happen media coverage nearly always places the blame tacitly or otherwise on the union. But it takes two to tango, and strikes don't happen unless management refuses to compromise too. In the case of Northwest, for example, the union has offered $100 million in concessions but management is demanding a package worth $176 million. So whose fault is the strike?

Kevin Drum 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TRACKING HURRICANE BUSH....The economy is really kicking ass. From the Washington Post:

The nation's poverty rate rose to 12.7 percent of the population last year, the fourth consecutive annual increase, the Census Bureau said Tuesday.

The percentage of people without health insurance did not change....Charles Nelson, an assistant division chief at the Census Bureau, said the percentage of uninsured remained steady because of an "increase in government coverage, notably Medicaid and the state children's health insurance program, that offset a decline in employment-based coverage."

....The median household income, meanwhile, stood at $44,389, unchanged from 2003.

Question 1: what's the point of a strong economy if it produces higher poverty rates, declining private sector healthcare coverage, and stagnant incomes?

Question 2: Whenever there are any nuggets of good employment news, the explanation from various quarters is either (a) tax cuts or (b) welfare reform. Do these two things also get the credit when there's bad news?

Just asking....

Kevin Drum 11:44 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

COUNTERINSURGENCY....Via Jim Henley, Jason Vest takes a crack at answering a question I was asking last night: why is it that after two years in Iraq, the Pentagon still isn't committed to fighting a counterinsurgency? The answer, Vest suggests, is that from the top down they still don't really believe we're fighting an insurgency in the first place:

A constant throughout all counterinsurgency literature is the importance of understanding not just the finer points of the nation and culture where one is operating, but the nature of insurgency itself. It was, therefore, nothing short of jarring when, on June 23, 2004, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz declared on MSNBC that what was happening in Iraq was "not an insurgency."

Wolfowitz explained that an "insurgency" is only synonymous with an "uprising." As such, he continued, the fighting in Iraq does not constitute an insurgency, as it's a "continuation of the war by people who never quit," waged by the same enemy "that fought us up until the fall of Baghdad and continues to fight afterwards."

Those with an appreciation for the nuances of counterinsurgency were shocked. Wolfowitz's comments demonstrated that the Pentagon leadership still believed that Iraq could be pacified through the conventional (and escalating) application of force.

Well, it's hardly the first thing Wolfowitz has been wrong about, is it? In fairness, though, Vest says that no one in the uniformed military really wants to fight a counterinsurgency anyway. They like their current setup better:

U.S. ground forces are only now beginning to readjust their approach toward counterinsurgency warfare. But to many knowledgeable observers, it's looking like too little, too late thanks largely to the Pentagon's myopic leadership. It isn't just that the Pentagon's civilian ideologues and acquiescent brass failed to entertain even the possibility of an insurgency. And it's not merely because the civilian leadership has demonstrated a profound and deadly ignorance of insurgency's historical lessons.

It's also because, despite a plethora of writing from soldier-scholars and the informal attempts at innovation by a handful of junior officers, no formal organizational strategy exists that allows the army to rapidly and effectively adapt. All counterinsurgency scholars agree the viability of any counterinsurgency endeavor, especially one undertaken by an occupying force, depends upon this capability.

A serious commitment to counterinsurgency wouldn't guarantee success in Iraq. However, a lack of commitment to it probably guarantees failure. It's way past time for the commander-in-chief to kick some butt over this.

Kevin Drum 12:14 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 29, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

PHOTOSHOPPING KATRINA....Here's an interesting little tidbit. The AFP photo below ran on the front pages of several websites yesterday, but apparently not every editor was happy with it the way it came over the wire. The LA Times made it look like a cloudy but bright day, the New York Times made it look gloomy and menacing, and the BBC chose something in the middle.

Via Yahoo, the original photo is here. Assuming this was put online with no modifications, it looks like the New York Times ran it straight.

Kevin Drum 9:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DOMESTIC MEANS, FOREIGN GOALS....I'm currently reading The Survivor, John Harris's account of Bill Clinton's presidency. Toward the end of the book he describes the "serious splits" among NATO allies at a war council during the Kosovo conflict, and how Clinton handled them:

Remarkably, Clinton was enjoying these crosscurrents. He was again liberated by his central insight into foreign policy: It was just like domestic politics, but in a different forum. As leaders descended on Washington, Clinton was working them as if he was trying to pass an education bill in the Arkansas legislature.

If this insight is correct, what does it say about George Bush's approach to foreign policy? Coincidentally, Jon Chait suggested the answer in his column last week:

Bush's [domestic] political successes all have three main elements in common....The first is massive partisan discipline.... Element No. 2 is massive giveaways to well-organized lobbies.... The third element is how should I put it? lying.

....Alas, none of these tools work as well in Baghdad as they do in Washington. Promising to build a bridge in Muqtada Sadr's district or funnel cash to his campaign is unlikely to mollify the Shiite strongman. Iraqi democracy, in its primitive state, has yet to develop the equivalent of K Street.

When it comes to crafting policies that are good, rather than policies that merely seem good to an inattentive public, the Bush administration turns out to be awful. You can insist that 125,000 troops are enough to reconstruct Iraq, just as you can insist that $400 billion is enough to pay for the Medicare bill. The difference is, the effects of higher federal debt can be obscured for a long time. But when Iraqi reconstruction has essentially halted, some two-thirds of the population lacks employment and terrorists and other armed thugs are roaming freely throughout Iraqi cities, lies can get you only so far.

I think this is fundamentally correct. Clinton, partly by nature and partly because he had to deal with a Republican Congress during most of his term, instinctively understood that America's foreign policy goals are best accomplished via persuasion and compromise. Bush, partly by nature and partly because he has no domestic opposition to speak of, instinctively believes that successful foreign policy is best accomplished via hectoring and stubbornness.

He is learning, to his sorrow, that he's wrong.

Kevin Drum 7:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TARGETS AND TIMELINES....Via Tapped, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden seems to be edging toward the "targets and timelines" view of how we should proceed in Iraq. He's proposing it for the right reason, too:

The administration, Wolf, tries to portray this as just one of two approaches. You can either stay the course with them, or in effect cut and run. I think there are other alternatives that ought to be pursued. For example, one that I'll be exploring in our intelligence committee is we've set deadlines for the Iraqi's on a constitution. We set deadlines with respect to elections.

....Why not say in an area where we don't seem to be making a lot of progress in terms of training the Iraqis for their own security, let's set a deadline there.

That's exactly right. If it weren't for the deadlines set down in the transitional law, Iraqi leaders wouldn't even be close to agreeing on a constitution. Likewise, without a firm deadline they won't get serious about training their own security forces either.

Not convinced? David Petraeus, the general in charge of training Iraqi troops, apparently learned otherwise last month, as Fred Kaplan reported in this little-noticed piece in Slate:

Some of Petraeus' aides, if not the general himself, have recently learned of rumors that Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari doesn't want his army to be well-trained. A leading Shiite, Jaafari reportedly fears that if the U.S. troops leave Iraq, the insurgents will crush all resistance and hoist the Sunnis back to power. Since the Americans have said they will leave once the Iraqi security forces are self-sufficient, Jaafari figures it's best to keep that day at bay. This could explain why many Iraqi units lack such basic materials as reliable weapons, ammunition, and sufficient food and bedding gear.

One of Petraeus' aides hit the roof when he heard this rumor of Jaafari's recalcitrance a few weeks ago. This may be why Rumsfeld seemed more perturbed than usual after his meeting with Jaafari in Baghdad this week. It may be why, for the first time, he brought up the subject of eventually pulling out.

This is, in fact, the best reason for declaring a timetableto force the Iraqi government to start taking their sovereignty seriously.

It's noteworthy that in a followup Petraeus's spokesman mouthed all the appropriate positive sentiments but didn't specifically deny the rumor. There's probably good reason for that.

There are plenty of things we need to do in Iraq. I've recently posted about plans from Juan Cole, Wes Clark, and Andrew Krepinevich, all of which contain potentially useful ideas. However, any plan has more credibility and a better chance of working if it also includes firm targets and timelines for success. Timelines for withdrawal need to be adopted in addition to a change of direction in Iraq, not in place of it.

Kevin Drum 2:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KATRINA AND THE SPR....Associated Press reports that President Bush will announce later today whether he will release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to make up for production losses caused by Hurricane Katrina:

Adminstration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said Bush seemed likely to authorize a loan of some oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve but that details remained in flux.

....Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who was pushing the White House to dip into the reserve even before Hurricane Katrina hit to help bring down gas prices, said, "If there was ever a time for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to be tapped, it would be now."

For what it's worth, I think Schumer was wrong before but correct now. The SPR is not meant to be used as a market stabilization mechanism or, even worse, as a blunt instrument for hammering down oil prices. It's meant to be used in emergencies. That's exactly what Katrina is, and releasing a few million barrels from the reserves to make up short-term production shortfalls over the next few weeks is well justified.

Kevin Drum 12:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KATRINA UPDATE....New Orleans isn't out of the woods yet, but apparently Katrina changed course during the night and New Orleans got hit by the northwest front of the hurricane instead of the northeast front. The winds slowed down a bit too. The damage appears to be bad, but not as catastrophic as it could have been, thank God.

Kevin Drum 11:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KATRINA....Ken Ringle writes in the Washington Post that Katrina truly is the Big One that could destroy New Orleans. But it has to hit just right for that to happen:

For a true New Orleans doomsday scenario, the storm's eye and strongest winds will have to thread a fairly precise path that carries its deadly northeast quadrant just east of the city. The real vulnerability of the city is not just that it's 10 to 15 feet below sea level, laced with more drainage canals than Venice, and must pump for its life around the clock in even the driest weather.

....The real nightmare has always been the prospect of a Wagnerian hurricane like Katrina coming ashore so that its strongest winds push the Gulf of Mexico into the eastern-facing entrance to Lake Pontchartrain, which borders the city's northern edge. The lake is both unusually shallow rarely more than 20 feet deep and unusually large more than half the size of the state of Rhode Island. A 20-foot storm surge arriving in concert with both high tide and 20-inch rains could overwhelm the city's more vulnerable lakeside levees and then flow downhill all the way to the French Quarter. Many of the city's massive drainage pumps are located closer to the lake. Were they to be flooded out, the city would not only be helplessly inundated while the hurricane is overhead it would remain so for weeks if not months.

By the time I wake up in the morning, we'll all know if this has really happened or if New Orleans has dodged a bullet once again. To all my readers in New Orleans and the surrounding areas, I hope you avoid the worst. Good luck.

Kevin Drum 2:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HISTORY LESSON....In the previous post, I mentioned in passing that the only successful large scale counterinsurgency by a foreign country since World War II was Britain's war against the communist insurgency in Malaysia (1948-1960). Over in The Corner, John Derbyshire points out that Malaysia isn't really a great comparison for Iraq:

With no prejudice at all towards David Brooks or Andrew Krepinevich, I do wish people would stop using the Malaya "Emergency" as an analogy for anything.

The enemy in that conflict were almost entirely Chinese communists, mainly under foreign (i.e. Chinese) command. They were deeply unpopular with practically all Malays: with the Bumiputra, who didn't much care for Chinese of any political orientation, and also with the Chinese Malays, who (a) were mainly small capitalists, and (b) felt they had enough problems getting on with their Malay neighbors without the added irritant of a Chinese-sponsored insurgency.

I don't want to minimize the sacrifice of those British soldiers killed in the "emergency" (which was filling the front pages of British newspapers about the time I started reading them), but Vietnam was, and Iraq is, very, very much harder than Malaya.

It's also worth noting that by 1948 the British had colonized Malaysia for over a century and had a level of local knowledge and experience far greater than we have in Iraq. What's more, a key part of the British strategy involved moving large numbers of ethnic Chinese out of the jungles and into purpose-built fortified settlements, thus depriving the insurgents of a local population that might have been sympathetic to their cause. This is obviously not an approach open to us in Iraq.

No comparison is perfect, and this one doesn't prove that success in Iraq is impossible. Still, large scale foreign counterinsurgencies have a lousy post-WWII record (Algeria, Vietnam, the Soviets in Afghanistan); the only real success story is not obviously transferable to Iraq; and the Pentagon is not dedicated to fighting a counterinsurgency in any case. As near as I can tell, they'd rather lose than admit they need to try something different.

Kevin Drum 1:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 28, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

"HOW TO WIN IN IRAQ"....As you know, I've been arguing for the past couple of months that we need a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq. Details aside, this is fundamentally based on my belief that unless you have well understood goals and objectives that you can hold people to, you'll never get anything done. We need firm targets and timelines in Iraq to have any chance of success there.

But timeline or not, we're still left with a tough question: our current strategy in Iraq isn't working, so what strategy should we adopt in its place? And here's where I run into a considerable amount of frustration. It's clear that we should be focused like a laser on fighting a classical counterinsurgency, and whenever I read or talk to people about this, I'm given the distinct impression that counterinsurgency is practically a science among military strategists. There is, I'm told, a large and well understood corpus of literature on the subject, and its basic tenets are widely agreed on.

Fine. So why is it that large foreign occupiers practically never win counterinsurgencies? The British in Malaysia are the only large-scale example of success since WWII, and while they may provide lessons for success, it's also the case that some of the tactics they used are simply not available to us. So what should we do?

Andrew Krepinevich, author of The Army and Vietnam, outlines an answer in Foreign Affairs this month, and the folks at FA have been kind enough to put the full text of his essay, "How to Win in Iraq," online. In it, Krepinevich outlines an approach with a media friendly moniker that he calls the "oil spot strategy." The basic idea is to stop focusing all our resources on killing insurgents, and instead pick particular areas, clean them up and provide security for the local population, and then slowly expand outward:

Each offensive...sweeping through the target area and clearing it of any major insurgent forces.....smaller formations...providing local security. National police would then arrive....Iraqi army units would switch to intensive patrolling along the oil spot's periphery....Iraqi and U.S. intelligence operatives...infiltrating local insurgent cells.

....Sustained security....facilitate social reform....help to convince the local population that the government is serious about protecting them. The overall objective, of course, would be winning their active support, whereupon they would presumably begin providing the government with intelligence on those insurgents who have "gone to ground" in the secured area.

Krepinevich also has some more conventional suggestions: we should improve our current efforts to train Iraqi forces; we should embed U.S. troops in Iraqi battalions; and we should stop the "pernicious practice" of rotating successful officers out of Iraq on a yearly basis. Those are all sound ideas.

Still, I found his essay deeply depressing for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the fact that Krepinevich had to write it at all. He acknowledges that even now, more than two years after the occupation began, the Army is still not committed to a counterinsurgency strategy. Whether or not his oil spot approach is correct, this can only leave you shaking your head. If we're still not committed to counterinsurgency as our overwhelmingly primary mission in Iraq, it seems unlikely that anything is going to change that.

Second, there's a lot of wishful thinking in Krepinevich's essay. It depends heavily on figuring out how to navigate the internal politics of Iraq's 150 tribes; gaining the trust of local leaders; mounting successful, large scale reconstruction projects; and improving our intelligence operations by an order of magnitude. Any strategy that depends on doing all these things successfully is walking on a very thin tightrope.

Third, Krepinevich suggests that our first target for oil spot operations should be Baghdad and Mosul. I almost choked when I read that. Baghdad? There's certainly no question that securing Baghdad would be good news indeed, but that's not a "spot," it's a city of 5 million people. I'd sure like to see his approach proven on a more modest scale before tackling Baghdad.

Finally, there's some serious waffling in his essay: he's anti-withdrawal but he's also pro-withdrawal. That is, he thinks we can execute both the Baghdad and Mosul offensives with fewer troops than we have now (!), and that after these offensives are concluded we can reduce our troop strength in Iraq to 60,000 (compared to about 140,000 today). Since he says earlier that these offensives would take "half a year or longer," this suggests that he thinks his strategy would lead to a substantial drawdown of U.S. forces by the end of 2006. A further drawdown to 20,000 would happen "over time."

If he truly believes that, though, why is he so flatly opposed to providing timelines for success? As it is, the reader can only surmise that one even exists. What's more, his fleeting references to a "decade of commitment" suggests that he's actually thinking in much longer timeframes but doesn't have the courage to make this clear up front. That doesn't speak well for his confidence in his own plan especially considering his enthusiasm for the use of metrics in so many other areas.

That said, the article is well worth reading. It's a good critique of current military practices in Iraq and it lays out in considerable detail an alternative that's based on a realistic assessment of what we're up against. Unfortunately, Krepinevich does too good a job: his honest acknowledgment of the Army's lack of commitment to counterinsurgency, as well as the obstacles that would stand in our way even if they were, leaves little hope that oil spots will be adopted or would be implemented successfully even if they were.

Kevin Drum 3:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KATRINA....Can I join every other person on the planet in recommending that if you live in New Orleans, you should get out now?

The weather service said it expected a "direct strike" by Katrina with "potentially catastrophic and life-threatening" consequences.... Local meteorologists predict that Katrina will make landfall at around 7 a.m. Monday morning and that it will likely run smack into New Orleans.

....It predicted coastal storm surge flooding of 18 to 22 feet above normal tide levels and locally as high as 28 feet, with "large and dangerous battering waves" near the center of the landfall and to the east.

How high are those levees again?

UPDATE: Chris Mooney, a native of New Orleans, wrote a prescient article in May about what would happen if "a slow-moving Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane" hit New Orleans. Katrina is a Category 5 hurricane moving at 12 miles per hour. His answer:

A direct hit from a powerful hurricane on New Orleans could furnish perhaps the largest natural catastrophe ever experienced on U.S. soil. Some estimates suggest that well over 25,000 non-evacuees could die. Many more would be stranded, and successful evacuees would have nowhere to return to. Damages could run as high as $100 billion.

Let's hope things don't turn out quite that badly.

Kevin Drum 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 27, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

IRAQI TALKS CONTINUE....The LA Times reports that Iraqi constitutional negotiations might go on for another couple of weeks:

"There is no D-Day," said Ali Dabagh of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite coalition that dominates the assembly and the Iraqi government. "Negotiations can continue until Oct. 15."

....Legal experts and Sunni Arab critics of the Shiite-led government have begun complaining that continuing delays violate Iraq's placeholder charter. But Feisal Istrabadi, a former Chicago lawyer who helped write Iraq's current, interim constitution, said Iraqi politicians are well within the spirit of the transitional law now in place to continue extending the deadline as long as necessary.

"I typed the deadlines with my own hands," Istrabadi, now an Iraqi diplomat serving at the United Nations, said in a telephone interview. "There was no intent to put a stranglehold in terms of negotiating and improving the text up to Oct. 15. The National Assembly is well within its rights to continue to the process." He added, "If the National Assembly needs more time, that's fine."

Technically, I think the legal experts are right and Istrabadi is wrong. Even in spirit he's probably wrong. But really, who cares? Iraq hardly seems like a place to get too mired in the letter of the law right now, and if they need a couple of weeks, they should take a couple of weeks. It's hard to see how that's any worse than abandoning the talks or risking having the constitution voted down.

Kevin Drum 11:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GENOCIDE IN DARFUR....Regular readers of the comment section are familiar with Shameless Hussy, a blood banking specialist who volunteered to be part of a medical mission to Darfur in June. When she got back I asked if she'd like to post about her experience on the blog, but despite a childhood spent witnessing war in El Salvador, the brutality of what she witnessed in Darfur has been too overwhelming for her to write about. Blue Girl, Red State tells us about it:

What she dealt with daily goes beyond the pale...beyond the nightmares of most people; Children with all four limbs hacked off right above the knee or below the elbow. Twelve year olds who died in childbirth after being gang-raped by the Janjaweed. Women who gave birth to rape-babies who were then cast out by their families for shaming the family name, leaving only one avenue of survival for themselves and their children after the camps: Prostitution.

What is fucking her up is the desperation, and the fact that she worked herself to death for over a month, and she still didn't really save anyone. Now that she's gone, it's like she was never there. Even the ones she helped keep alive, she didn't save. You try dealing with that reality.

Shameless Hussy is now recuperating in a secluded cabin in Missouri, where she is taking care of her dying grandmother. I know she has all our best wishes.

Kevin Drum 5:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE BELL CURVE....Yes, Andrew Sullivan should be ashamed for saying that The Bell Curve "still holds up." It's a pernicious book that misused its own statistics in an effort to convince the public that the longstanding gap in IQ scores between whites and blacks is an immutable genetic reality that needs to be accepted as a permanent fact of life a conclusion that's not only wrong, but wrong even on the terms of the book's own evidence.

Since everyone is talking about this, though, it's worth pointing out that legitimate criticism of The Bell Curve sometimes morphs into pop debunkings of the entire subject of IQ, biology, and environment. With that in mind, if you're interested in the consensus view of the psychology and psychometrics profession on the current state of IQ research, you might want to check out a summary report issued by the American Psychological Association in 1995 following the publication of The Bell Curve. With the caveat that it's ten years old, it presents a reasonably concise summary of what the profession itself believes about IQ, how it's measured, whether it matters, how it can be affected, and whether there are biological differences in IQ between genders and races.

For those who don't want to read the entire report, however, here's what it says on the key questions of genetics and race:

  • On genetics: "Across the ordinary range of environments in modern Western societies, a sizable part of the variation in intelligence test scores is associated with genetic differences among individuals....In childhood [heritability is] of the order of .45....by late adolescence [heritability] is around .75....Substantial environmental variance remains, but it primarily reflects within-family rather than between-family differences."

  • On race: "It is sometimes suggested that the Black/White differential in psychometric intelligence is partly due to genetic differences (Jensen, 1972). There is not much direct evidence on this point, but what little there is fails to support the genetic hypothesis...."

Read the whole report for caveats and further detail, of course.

Kevin Drum 2:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ABLE DANGER GOES TO CHINA!....The Able Danger story hasn't yet provided us with much fun, so I'm happy to report that silly season leaks are finally starting to emerge from anonymous sources deep in the bowels of (presumably) the Pentagon. These sources tell the New York Post that contractor J.D. Smith, the man who supposedly ID'd Mohamed Atta for the Able Danger program, was fired after making some wee errors in a different data mining program:

Sources said the private contractors, using sophisticated computer software that sifts through massive amounts of raw data to establish patterns, came up with a chart of Chinese strategic and business connections in the U.S.

The program wrongly tagged [Condoleezza] Rice, who at the time was an adviser to then-candidate George W. Bush, and former Defense Secretary William Perry by linking their associations at Stanford, along with their contacts with Chinese leaders, sources said.

The program also spat out scores of names of other former government officials with legitimate ties to China, as well as prominent American businessmen.

Let's play the leak-meta-analysis game! Why was this information leaked? Presumably to discredit Smith. But why discredit Smith? Because he's the guy who identified Atta. If Smith FUBARed the China project this badly, it provides the Army with an excellent justification for ignoring his al-Qaeda work as well.

But why does the Army need a ready-made excuse for ignoring Smith's al-Qaeda work? Probably because he really did identify Atta, and pretty soon they're going to have to admit it. The mills of the Pentagon grind slow, but they grind exceeding fine....

Kevin Drum 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 26, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

ABLE DANGER AND THE BLIND SHEIKH....Fox News has an interview today with J.D. Smith, a military contractor who says he worked on the Able Danger project. He told them how Able Danger identified Mohamed Atta prior to 9/11:

Smith said data was gathered from a variety of sources, including about 30 or 40 individuals. He said they all had strong Middle Eastern connections and were paid for their information. Smith said Able Danger's photo of Atta was obtained from overseas.

....Two sources familiar with Able Danger told FOX News that part of its investigative work focused on mosques and the religious ties between known terrorist operatives such as Omar Abdul Rahman, who was part of the first World Trade Center bombing plot in 1993.

....Smith claims that one way the unit came to know Atta was through Rahman. Smith said Able Danger used data mining techniques publicly available information to look at mosques and religious ties and it was, in part, through the investigation of Rahman that Atta's name surfaced.

Mickey Kaus adds the following:

1) Smith said the data mined by Able Danger was public data.... 2) Smith acknowledged that the picture of Atta he claims to have seen on the chart was very grainy, but he says he recognized Atta by his distinctive cheekbones.

Good news first: Omar Abdul Rahman, aka the "Blind Sheikh," was the leader of a Brooklyn mosque whose terrorist connections would definitely have been worth tracing, so that part of the story makes sense. Furthermore, if Able Danger ID'd Atta via links to Rahman, that explains why they referred to him as being part of a "Brooklyn cell." That part of the story has always been a little hazy before.

Peculiar news #1: Considering Rahman's history in the early 90s, when he was practically the epicenter of Islamic terrorism in the United States, the CIA and the FBI must surely have tracked down every conceivable link to him long before Able Danger ever started up in 1999. Why then would Able Danger have replicated this work?

Peculiar news #2: Data was gathered from "30 or 40 individuals"? This doesn't sound like data mining to me, it sounds like primary intelligence gathering. I don't know if it's plausible that a small and experimental project like Able Danger would have done this, but it raises a red flag.

Bad news: "Distinctive cheekbones"? You've got to be kidding.

Beyond this I'm too tired to speculate. It's worth noting, however, that Curt Weldon is continuing the blast the conveniently scapegoatable 9/11 Commission over their failure to follow up on Able Danger, while staying oddly silent about the Army, which is most clearly at fault here if all these charges turn out to be true. This is almost certainly because Weldon wants to stay on good terms with the Pentagon, whose support he wants for his own data mining program.

But Weldon's hyperventilating doesn't change the fact that the 9/11 Commission genuinely appears to be caught in the middle here. The Pentagon told the 9/11 Commission that Able Danger didn't come up with anything, and that's the story they've stuck to ever since. If anybody's lying here, it's either the Weldon/Shaffer/Phillpott/Smith crowd or else it's the Pentagon. There's no evidence so far that the 9/11 Commission did anything wrong.

Kevin Drum 8:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

AN IRAQI CONFEDERATION?....What's the likely end state for Iraq? Heather Hurlburt argues that we're already there for the Kurds: they have no interest in a centrally governed Iraq, and they have both the economy and the militia to make their wishes stick. That sounds right to me, especially since it seems unlikely that either the Shiites or the Sunnis really have much interest in trying to oppose them.

In a related piece, Michael Kraig argues that a loose confederation is both the current and future best case for Iraq, and we might as well get used to it. Would it work? The risks are high, but he suggests we can make the best of the situation by actively engaging Iraq's neighbors, none of whom really want to see Iraq spin apart and export its jihadis to their countries. His suggestion: accept the reality of a loose confederation, concentrate on building a "firewall" around Iraq, and work closely with neighboring countries who all have a stake in making this work.

It's worth a read.

Kevin Drum 1:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CLARK AND IRAQ....As an admirer of Wes Clark, I read his proposal for Iraq in today's Washington Post with interest. Clark is opposed to setting a date for pulling out, and after the usual litany of criticisms of Bush adminstration policy he offers a plan of his own. Here are the highlights:

The United States should form a standing conference of Iraq's neighbors....public U.S. declaration forswearing permanent bases in Iraq.

On the political side....Constitution....no Kurdish vote on independence, a restricted role for Islam and limited autonomy in the south. And no private militias....Monies promised for reconstruction simply must be committed and projects moved forward.

On the military side....train police and local justices....Canada, France and Germany should be engaged to assist....must return primarily to the tried-and-true methods of counterinsurgency....Ten thousand Arab Americans with full language proficiency should be recruited to assist as interpreters....Over time U.S. forces should be pulled back into reserve roles and phased out.

Unfortunately, I agree with Matt Yglesias: none of this really seems very doable:

Would Iraq's neighbors really want to cooperate in such a venture? "[N]o private militias" would, of course, be fantastic, but how do you achieve that? "Ten thousand Arab Americans with full language proficiency should be recruited to assist as interpreters," but do ten thousand Arab Americans with full language proficiency want to go? You get the general idea.

Still, since the administration's current approach seems almost guaranteed to fail, Clark's plan is at least worth a try. Regardless of the details, though, I continue to think that any plan that doesn't include firm goals and deadlines even though I recognize they wouldn't always be met is less likely to succeed than one that does have them. That's Management 101.

So: we should implement Clark's plan, or something similar, but we should make the plan credible by attaching firm public metrics to it and insisting that we measure our success against them. I wouldn't hire a contractor to install a new kitchen without goals and schedules. Why does anyone think we should fight a war with less?

Kevin Drum 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FALLUJAH UPDATE....This story about military operations in Fallujah by Knight Ridder's Tom Lasseter is interesting....

American officers and enlisted men assigned to Anbar [province] have stopped talking about winning a military victory in Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland. Instead, they're trying to hold on to a handful of population centers and hit smaller towns in a series of quick-strike operations designed to disrupt insurgent activities temporarily.

.... Military officials now frequently compare the fight in Anbar to the Vietnam War, saying that guerrilla fighters, who blend back into the population, are trying to break the will of the American military rather than defeat it outright and to erode public support for the war back home.

....but the editor's note at the end of the story is even more interesting:

Tom Lasseter made regular trips to Fallujah in the summer and winter of 2003, interviewing tribal sheiks and residents there before the town fell to insurgents. He wrote extensively about the brewing unrest in the region, and the misunderstandings and conflicts between residents and the U.S. military units stationed there. During that period he was able to walk freely throughout the town with a translator.

He was last in Fallujah without military escort in early 2004 when insurgents overran the downtown police station. After men repeatedly pointed AK-47s at his chest and face and threatened to shoot him, he decided not to return except with American troops. Insurgents took over the town that April.

He reported on troops in Ramadi last summer, and wrote about the scaling back of patrols there and low morale among troops. He returned to Anbar province in November, when U.S. troops retook Fallujah in the worst urban combat since Vietnam. For this series of stories, Lasseter spent three weeks in the province this month embedded with Marine and Army units in Haqlaniya, Haditha, Hit, Ramadi and Fallujah.

If Lasseter is right and he obviously has the street cred to be taken seriously on this Anbar is about as bad now as it was before last November's offensive; no one has much hope that it can be pacified; and the troops themselves now routinely think of Iraq as another Vietnam. If this is the way the military feels, is it any wonder that reporting from Iraq has taken on a distinctly defeatist tone?

Kevin Drum 1:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CELL-O-PHONE PARK?....From the LA Times today:

A series of proposed revisions of National Park policy has created furor among present and former park officials....

The potential changes would allow cell phone towers, low flying tour planes and renewed mining claims into parks where they were previously prohibited....

Great. Soon there will be literally nowhere left in the entire country that's free of people yammering away on their cell phones and complaining about lousy reception. I hope they all get eaten by bears.

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By: Kevin Drum

ARITHMETIC FOR REPORTERS....Associated Press reports that the Mint has seized ten 1933 Double Eagles from a dealer who turned them in to determine their authenticity:

The coins, which are so rare that their value is almost beyond calculation, are public property, [said David Lebryk, acting director of the Mint].

....In 2002, Sotheby's and numismatic firm Stack's auctioned off a 1933 Double Eagle coin for $7.59 million, the highest price ever paid for a coin.

That's "almost beyond calculation"? Looks to me like they're worth about $75.9 million, right? Not so hard after all....

Kevin Drum 12:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 25, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SUMMER READING....The Washington Examiner asked a bunch of people to supply recommendations for George Bush's summer reading. I suggested The Republican War on Science, by Chris Mooney. He'd learn a lot from it, don't you think?

Kevin Drum 9:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BELITTLING THE PAST....There are probably bigger things to worry about, but this particular passage from Howard Fineman's comparison of Vietnam and Iraq bugged me:

In Vietnam, the threat posed by our departure was always difficult for Americans to grasp, even though they had been schooled in Red Scare thinking for a generation. According to the "domino theory," a Vietnam in Communist hands would inevitably lead to Communist domination of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rimall the way, presumably, to the Embarcadero.

If you knew the history and the local politics you knew this was a fiction: the Vietnamese hated and feared the Chinese, and the Russians weren't going to be able to control the region. Americans never really bought the "domino theory. LBJ's (and later Richard Nixon's) political enemies had no trouble eventually offering a rather simple alternative strategy: get out, or, as Sen. George McGovern put it, "Come Home America."

But what is the alternative now, in Iraq? Few Democrats, let alone Republicans, are willing to agree at this point with Sen. Russ Feingold, who has called for a short, specific timetable for American withdrawal. Few experts I know think that leaving tomorrow would make the country less of a breeding ground for Islamic extremist terror.

This kind of rose-colored view of past problems is a common rhetorical gambit among pundits who want to make a case that our generation's problems are somehow uniquely complex and intractable. Hell, I've seen folks over at NRO, of all places, waxing almost nostalgic for the Cold War because it was allegedly a simpler time when it was just us and the Russians, and really, we knew how to handle them all along.

In this case, either Fineman's wrong or I am, and I'm happy to open this up to my older commenters for adjudication. My memory is that (1) far from realizing the domino theory was a fiction, lots of people in the 60s took it deadly seriously, (2) even as late as 1972 McGovern's supposedly simple alternative was never supported by either the "experts" or a majority of Americans, and (3) we largely stayed in Vietnam out of a fear of looking weak in the face of a deadly and expansionist enemy.

In other words, Vietnam looked exactly as hard back then as Iraq does now. In Iraq we have an insurgency we don't know how to beat (check); we're afraid that if the insurgency wins it will spread to other countries (check); and we're afraid that if we leave we'll look spineless (check).

Those fears turned out to be exaggerated 30 years ago, and they'll probably turn out to be exaggerated again. We just need to be clear-eyed enough to admit to ourselves that today's problems aren't really all that different from yesterday's. They only seem that way.

UPDATE: Mickey Kaus falls into the same trap. Writing about Hillary Clinton's dilemma (should she turn against the war or stay the course?), he says:

Hillary's dilemma is worse, because Iraq isn't Vietnam and the current Beltway consensus she's being asked to denounce is a lot righter than LBJ was. Even mainstream Bush-bashing libs, in my experience, readily recognize that just withdrawing from Iraq now would be a global strategic disaster in a way withdrawing from Vietnam wasn't.

Sure, in hindsight, withdrawing from Vietnam turned out not to be a disaster for the United States. But at the time the beltway consensus among Democrats and Republicans was exactly the same as it is now on Iraq: losing would be a catastrophe that would embolden the communists and demonstrate U.S. weakness in the face of an implacable foe. The beltway crowd in the mid-60s felt every bit as strongly about this then as it does today about Iraq.

Kevin Drum 9:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SINKING EVER LOWER....Just when you thought cable news couldn't sink any lower, cable news sinks lower. Two weeks ago, Fox News wrongly identified the house of Randy and Ronnell Vorick as a terrorist lair:

In what Fox News officials concede was a mistake, John Loftus, a former U.S. prosecutor, gave out the address Aug. 7, saying it was the home of a Middle Eastern man, Iyad K. Hilal, who was the leader of a terrorist group with ties to those responsible for the July 7 bombings in London.

Hilal, whom Loftus identified by name during the broadcast, moved out of the house about three years ago. But the consequences were immediate for the Voricks.

Italics mine. He gave out the address! On national TV! That's practically an invitation for local thugs to firebomb the house.

But now for the worst part. Not only has Fox not retracted this report, but here is Loftus' brain dead pseudo-excuse for broadcasting the Voricks' address to 20 million viewers in the first place:

"I thought it might help police in that area now that we have positively identified a terrorist living in [Orange County]," he said.

Note to Loftus: the next time you want to let police know about a terrorist living here in the OC, call the police.

Kevin Drum 1:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

READING RUMSFELD....How can you tell when Donald Rumsfeld is lying? When he sucks his lips. When does he suck his lips? Pretty much every time he appears in front of the TV cameras.

Marc Cooper, who is getting trained in poker body language this week, explains here.

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BRINGING THE TROOPS HOME....Garance Franke-Ruta suggests today that George Bush does have a plan to withdraw from Iraq. He just isn't willing to admit it:

I wonder if what we're in fact seeing is a White House strategy of maximizing harm to domestic political opponents (by continuing to cast them as peaceniks unwilling to defend America) while slowly bowing to public opinion (which has turned against the war)....A political strategy of using the next six to nine months to continue to paint the Democrats as weak on national security, to be followed by a declaration of success and public return of some significant fraction but not all troops in advance of the mid-term elections, to be followed in turn by attacks on anti-war Democrats who wanted the United States to pull out "too early" and before the job was done, doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility. After all, what other options does the administration have?

I'll confess that I find it unusually hard to guess what's on Bush's mind here. On the one hand, there's been a steadily increasing stream of evidence over the past couple of months that Bush would very much like to begin drawing down troops prior to the 2006 midterms. On the other hand, he's also been crystal clear about his intention of staying until we defeat the insurgency. If that's really the way he feels, there's not much chance of reducing troop strength anytime soon.

Still, I've long believed that Bush is unlikely to risk his presidency over Iraq, so I suspect that Garance is right. As soon as he finds a convenient excuse, I imagine that Bush will declare that victory is in sight and begin bringing the troops home.

Kevin Drum 12:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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ARMY GENERAL SUPPORTS WITHDRAWAL....My argument in favor of a public withdrawal plan for Iraq has been based on three points: (1) it will motivate the Iraqis to take training of their own security forces more seriously, (2) it will reduce local support for the insurgency, much of which is based on a belief that we plan to occupy Iraq forever, and (3) we're going to have trouble keeping 135,000 troops in Iraq much past 2006 anyway. Today, the top operations commander for Iraq backed me up:

The US is expected to pull significant numbers of troops out of Iraq in the next 12 months in spite of the continuing violence, according to the general responsible for near-term planning in the country.

Maj Gen Douglas Lute, director of operations at US Central Command, yesterday said the reductions were part of a push by Gen John Abizaid, commander of all US troops in the region, to put the burden of defending Iraq on Iraqi forces.

....He said: "We believe at some point, in order to break this dependence on the...coalition, you simply have to back off and let the Iraqis step forward.

"You have to undercut the perception of occupation in Iraq. It's very difficult to do that when you have 150,000-plus, largely western, foreign troops occupying the country."

That's some pretty high level support for points #1 and #2, and although Lute can't publicly acknowledge point #3, all you have to do is look at the latest year-to-date recruiting figures to see that the Army's manpower problems are becoming very real.

It's worth noting that Lute is providing grounds not just for a withdrawal plan, but for a public withdrawal plan. After all, point #1 is common sense: anyone who's ever been in charge of anything knows that things don't get done unless people have firm goals and firm deadlines. Iraq's leaders simply aren't going to take troop training seriously until they figure out that America won't be around forever at which point they're going to need security forces of their own in order to keep their government intact. And the only way to make that warning credible is to make it public.

Point #2 is similar. Insurgencies depend on support from the surrounding population, and public support for the Iraqi insurgency is partly motivated by hatred of the U.S. occupation. The only way to "undercut the perception of occupation" is to convince them that we aren't going to be around forever and the only way to do that credibly is to do it publicly.

We simply don't get any benefit from points #1 and #2 unless people believe we're serious about meeting our goals in Iraq and then leaving, and the only way to do that is to make our intentions public. It's true that things might end badly in Iraq anyway, but at least we will have done everything we possibly could to make it work. Considering how disastrous a failed Iraqi state would be, we can't afford to do any less.

Kevin Drum 1:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 24, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

TAKING WAR SERIOUSLY....Former White House speechwriter David Frum panned George Bush's latest Iraq speech yesterday, saying, "By now it should be clear that President Bush's words on the subject of Iraq have ceased connecting with the American public." His basic complaint: you can't announce a big speech and then say the same old thing over and over again. It ain't working.

I suppose it's only natural that a speechwriter would focus more on what Bush says than what he does, but even so it's telling that Frum seems to have no substantive advice for his former boss. Do conservatives really buy their own propaganda that things are going swimmingly in Iraq and it's only the liberal media that's making it look bad? Or do they genuinely not have any ideas?

Well, I've got some ideas to run up the flagpole:

  • Make the Pentagon's goals for training Iraqi security forces public. "My fellow citizens, we're going to provide monthly reports on how we're doing against these goals. You can hold us to them."

  • Encourage enlistment in the Army and Marines. "To today's youth I say, 'You can become our country's greatest generation.' Join up now and help us in our greatest struggle: ridding the world of terrorist killers and the people who support them."

  • Get rid of the military's ban on gay soldiers. "We're at war, and that means we need everyone who's willing and able to fight. Gay or straight, black or white, male or female, if you're willing to enlist, our military opens its arms to you."

  • Propose a genuine energy independence plan. "We need more efficient cars. We need new sources of energy to power them. We need a tax on oil use. We need better mass transit. I'll be submitting a bill to Congress next week."

Of course, all of these things pose problems. Not only do they incorporate a tacit admission that things in Iraq aren't progressing as well as Bush has been claiming, they all offend some interest group or other. Being held accountable might make the Pentagon look bad. Asking for enlistments might embarrass hawks who prefer not to interrupt their rise up the corporate ladder. Welcoming gays into the military would enrage the Christian right. And energy independence would piss off a whole array of corporate interests that Bush depends on.

Still, if Bush isn't willing to take even a single one of these modest steps and run the risk of annoying even a single one of the interest groups that support him, why should any of the rest of us take his "central front in the war on terror" seriously? Obviously he doesn't.

Kevin Drum 5:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE ORIGINALISM....Since I live in the hinterlands of Irvine and the Washington Monthly is produced in, um, Washington, I'm not always aware of what's coming up in future issues of the magazine. It turns out, though, that last night's post about originalism was well timed from a blog/magazine synergy point of view, because the September issue has a review of Cass Sunstein's Radicals in Robes that addresses exactly the question Dahlia Lithwick and I were asking: where's the liberal response to the originalists who currently dominate popular opinion regarding proper interpretation of the constitution?

In "Judging the Judges," Stephen Pomper writes that Sunstein groups legal theorists into four camps. "Fundamentalists" (i.e., originalists) are on the far right, "perfectionists" are on the far left, and "minimalists" are on the center left:

Minimalists, explains Sunstein, are opposite in temperament from both originalists and perfectionists: They don't want the courts getting into deep first principle type questions on contentious social issues. They prefer that the law be changed through narrow rulings and small nudges rather than precedent-setting earthquakes. Minimalism does not have the grand theoretical architecture of an approach like originalism, and Sunstein recognizes this, but its modest claims are rather attractive.

Modest claim #1: By leaving big decisions to the elected branches, it's fairly democraticcertainly more so than perfectionism or originalism, both of which afford more discretion to the courts to overrule the elected branches. Modest claim #2: It has crossover appeal. Moderate conservatives like Justice O'Connor can do it. (They nudge the law right.) Moderate liberals like Justice Ginsburg can do it. (They nudge the law left.) Modest claim #3: Minimalism reduces the risk of huge screw ups. It recognizes that the courts operate in a sphere of great moral and ethical ambiguity and that if the Court comes down too firmly on one side of an issue it may in fact be monumentally wrong.

As for originalism itself, Mitchell Freedman points out that there's considerable evidence that the founders themselves believed the constitution to be a living document, a paradox that modern originalists prefer not to deal with.

Meanwhile, Marc Lynch says he doesn't know much about constitutional law, but he does know a bit about Islamic fundamentalist (salafi) jurisprudence and to his ears it sounds disturbingly similar to American originalism. He even has some research suggestions for anyone who wants to explore this parallel further.

Finally, Nathan Newman points out that the founders aren't the only people to look to for originalist opinion anyway. Much of modern constitutional law is based on the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, and those amendments were passed by the Radical Republicans shortly after the Civil War. A true originalist would also look to them for textual guidance, but the reality is that most originalists give them short shrift. Why? Because their opinions don't line up with modern conservativism. It's funny how some framers count and others don't, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 1:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SO LIGHT, SO SWEET!....A reader writes concerning my post last night about the Tierney/Simmons bet on oil prices:

If you are serious about taking up Simmons's side of the "original bet" against Tierney, you should simply buy futures or options.

For example, you could buy a call option for Dec 2010 on 1000 barrels of crude oil for about $5,800 (yesterday's prices). If the price indeed goes up to $85, you would make a $15,000 profit...even better than what you'd get from Tierney.


Go ahead, take the plunge...you can even blog about it!

He's right, of course. This didn't occur to me because my most sophisticated financial transactions in the past have mostly involved flipping a coin to decide which mutual funds to invest my 401(k) in. Call options on light sweet crude never showed up as one of my choices.

But it's a good thought, isn't it, for someone who thinks we're likely to see oil production peak sometime in the next few years? I wonder if I can talk Marian into this....?

Kevin Drum 12:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WHAT DOES JOHN ROBERTS THINK?....As someone who hasn't followed Supreme Court confirmation hearings all that closely in the past, I've been puzzling recently over the proposition that John Roberts doesn't really have an obligation to answer concrete questions about either his judicial philosophy or his opinions of past decisions. Has it always been like this? ("Always," of course, being defined the way it usually is these day: since 1980.)

Over at TPMCafe, Jason Spitalnick provides a useful corrective by reviewing the confirmation hearings for Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In particular, he says that Breyer was quite forthcoming to queries from Republican senators:

By way of example, he provided detailed, clear responses to Senator Hatch's questions on school vouchers and the First Amendment; to Senator Biden about the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment; to Senators Thurmond and Specter about the application of the death penalty; and to Senator Grassley about his understanding of federalism and the separation of powers doctrine. Most of the questions Justice Breyer refused to answer concerned future application of particular legal standards to specific hypothetical situations.

Precedent is crucial in setting the rules formal and informal for judicial confirmation hearings. That is precisely why it is critical that the public understand what happened during the Breyer and Ginsburg hearings. The nominees drew lines in the sand that preserved their ability to rule impartially in the future, but opened windows into their personal approaches to judging and the law. Without that information, Senators cannot fulfill their constitutional responsibility to the American people.

Nick Stephanopoulos has more on the subject. On a related note, Jane Hamsher got a chance to chat with Oregon senator Ron Wyden at a dinner party a few days ago, and asked him about Roberts and abortion:

Wyden said he'd met with the guy for an hour recently, and that....Democrats were going to have a really hard time opposing Roberts because he's very likeable and in the hearings he'll be very winning.

And for all those people who are sitting around deluding themselves that Roberts is going to get on the court and do a Souter, Senator Wyden said, "There is no doubt in my mind that John Roberts will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade."

There you have it.

Kevin Drum 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ORIGINALISM....Of all the pillars of modern conservatism, the one that has long struck me as the most obviously absurd is the doctrine of orginalism. Think about it. Are we really supposed to take seriously the idea that the Supreme Court of 2005 in an era of spyware, genetic mapping, and billion dollar hedge funds is supposed to make its judgments by trying to divine the intent of a small group of men who lived in a simple agrarian community 200 years ago? Presented baldly, it's an idea that wouldn't pass muster with a bright 10 year old.

And yet, despite the fact that originalism is little more than a transparent and flimsy attempt to justify a fondness for 18th century social values, it has become the centerpiece of a vast and increasingly popular intellectual enterprise. As Dahlia Lithwick puts it today, "the majority of the nation seems now to be of the firm belief that there is only one way to view the U.S. Constitution: in the way the framers first intended."

The reasons for this are fairly obvious. First, a substantial fraction of the country would very much like to reinstate 18th century social values. Originalism is simply a means to an end for these people. Second, originalism provides a congenial guarantee of certainty: it is, say its proponents, a clear and simple yardstick for deciding constitutional questions. This appeals even to a lot of people who are perfectly happy with the modern world.

Of course, the certainty of originalism is a mirage. In fact, if anything, it injects more uncertainty into the judicial enterprise. After all, in addition to the sort of legal analysis that's required under any doctrine of constitutional interpretation, originalism also requires an attempt to apply the intent of the framers to situations most of them never dreamed of. This, in turn, requires a nearly PhD level of familiarity with 18th century history, social mores, legal theory, and philosophical thought not to mention a science fiction writer's facility with "what if" questions. This makes constitutional interpretation harder, not easier.

Perversely, though, this leads us to the third reason for originalism's popularity: it's a great soundbite. It may add complexity to the judicial enterprise in practice, but if you don't think about it much it sure sounds like it simplifies things and people like simple things. What's more, as Lithwick says, originalism has the field to itself these days. No one is even fighting back:

In a very thoughtful essay published last week in the American Prospect, Adele M. Stan argues, "Liberals have done virtually nothing to explain the Constitution to regular people in terms they understand." Before you call those sentiments classist or elitist, ask yourself when you last read a compelling defense of the "living Constitution" in your daily newspaper. And I don't mean a defense against the "activist judiciary" charge these are not the same things. All too often these two criticisms are conflated, but it's certainly possible to imagine a "living Constitution" as interpreted by hands-off, minimalist judges.

Regardless of originalism's substantive merits, you can't fight something with nothing, which makes Lithwick's question a good one: why is it that liberals seem to have given up on formulating a simple and compelling alternative? Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is apparently going to take a crack at it in Active Liberty, to be published next month, and with any luck it will stimulate a needed debate. It's time to stop allowing originalism to roam the field unopposed.

Kevin Drum 1:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 23, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SUCKER BET?....I'm going to break my rule about linking to New York Times op-eds again, and I'm doing it for the usual reason: because I just can't help myself. Today's target is John Tierney's column, but, oddly enough, the target isn't Tierney himself. It's Matt Simmons. Here's what Tierney wrote today:

After reading [Matt Simmons's] prediction, quoted Sunday in the cover story of The New York Times Magazine, that oil prices will soar into the triple digits, I called to ask if he'd back his prophecy with cash. Without a second's hesitation, he agreed to bet me $5,000.

....I proposed to him a bet....that the price of oil would not rise faster than the average wage, meaning that future workers would be able to afford oil more easily than they could today.

Mr. Simmons said he favored a simpler wager, based on his expectation that the price of oil, now about $65 per barrel, would more than triple during the next five years. He said he'd bet that the price in 2010, when adjusted for inflation so it's stated in 2005 dollars, would be at least $200 per barrel.

Let me get this straight. In the next five years, the average worker's wage is likely to go up about 10-20%. Maybe 30% tops. Using the high number, this means that Tierney offered Simmons a bet that he could win if the price of oil hits $85 per barrel by 2010.

So what does he do? He turns down Tierney's offer and instead proposes a bet that he can win only if the price of oil tops $200 per barrel in 2005 dollars. Call it $240 in round numbers.

In other words, Simmons turned down an easy bet and insisted instead on a much harder one, something that doesn't speak well for Simmons's financial prowess, especially after 30 years in the banking business. He can't be that sure that oil at $240 per barrel by 2010 is a no-brainer, can he?

And a note to Tierney: if you're still looking for someone to take you up on your original bet, my checkbook is ready and waiting.

Kevin Drum 10:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE FOG OF RUMSFELD....The latest from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is pathetic:

Rumsfeld said he did not know how to explain an increase in U.S. casualties in Iraq from roadside bombs, "other than the fact that they [insurgents] obviously are becoming more sophisticated in developing, in large measure, explosive devices which have greater lethality."

But he said that while some roadside bombs have been deadlier, the "overwhelming majority" of them about 75 percent "are not effective at all" and cause no casualties.

He thinks a 25% success rate for roadside bombs is good news? That sounds remarkably high to me.

Judging by his recent public performances, Rumsfeld has no clue what's going on in Iraq. He doesn't know where the insurgents are coming from, he doesn't know how well our training operations are coming along, he has no idea how long we're likely to stay, and now he doesn't know why casualties are up from roadside bombs. I had a guy working for me once who, after several months on the job, continued to show this level of cluelessness in his area of expertise. You'll be unsurprised to learn that I fired him.

Kevin Drum 7:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE BLUES....Via Ezra, Malcolm Gladwell asks the key question about American healthcare in the New Yorker:

One of the great mysteries of political life in the United States is why Americans are so devoted to their health-care system. Six times in the past century during the First World War, during the Depression, during the Truman and Johnson Administrations, in the Senate in the nineteen-seventies, and during the Clinton years efforts have been made to introduce some kind of universal health insurance, and each time the efforts have been rejected. Instead, the United States has opted for a makeshift system of increasing complexity and dysfunction. Americans spend $5,267 per capita on health care every year, almost two and half times the industrialized worlds median of $2,193; the extra spending comes to hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

What does that extra spending buy us? Americans have fewer doctors per capita than most Western countries. We go to the doctor less than people in other Western countries. We get admitted to the hospital less frequently than people in other Western countries. We are less satisfied with our health care than our counterparts in other countries. American life expectancy is lower than the Western average. Childhood-immunization rates in the United States are lower than average.

....Nor is our system more efficient. The United States spends more than a thousand dollars per capita per year or close to four hundred billion dollars on health-care-related paperwork and administration, whereas Canada, for example, spends only about three hundred dollars per capita. And, of course, every other country in the industrialized world insures all its citizens; despite those extra hundreds of billions of dollars we spend each year, we leave forty-five million people without any insurance.

Gladwell suggests that although politics has a lot to do with America's weird and dysfunctional healthcare system, so does elite economic opinion. Read the whole thing to get his take on "moral hazard" and how it's warped the way American economists think about healthcare.

Aside from that, I think the passage above also highlights the big problem among non-elites: for some reason, Americans aren't pissed off enough about their healthcare to demand change. Americans are bizarrely obsessed by stories about six-month waits for hip surgery in Canada, and thus have no clue that virtually every advanced country in the world has healthcare that's better than ours, cheaper than ours, and covers more people than ours. All they can think about is that six month wait for hip replacements.

Sadly, this points to a serious problem: there will never be any dramatic change to American healthcare until more people realize just how bad our system is and get seriously angry about it. If this were a conservative issue, that wouldn't be any problem: the politics of anger is their standard approach to most problems anyway. For liberals, it's not quite so appealing.

Kevin Drum 2:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE ABLE DANGER WEIRDNESS....Yeah, I know everyone is bored with this story, but one way or another I think it's going to turn out to be pretty interesting. I'm just not sure yet which way it's going to be interesting.

The latest comes from the New York Times, which interviewed Capt. Scott Phillpott, a member of the Able Danger team:

"My story is consistent," said Captain Phillpott, who managed the program for the Pentagon's Special Operations Command. "Atta was identified by Able Danger by January-February of 2000."

Now, this is just plain odd. As I mentioned a few days ago, Mohamed Atta's full name was "Mohamed Mohamed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta," and prior to 2000 he went by "Mohamed el-Amir." The first reference to "Mohamed Atta" that we know of was in his March 2000 emails to American flight schools, but it's very unlikely that Able Danger had access to those. The first reference to "Mohamed Atta" that would have been accessible to American authorities was on his visa application, in May 2000.

So how did Able Danger learn about Mohamed el-Amir (or Mohamed Atta) in January 2000? The Times article provides this clue:

Representative [Curt] Weldon also arranged an interview with a former employee of a defense contractor who said he had helped create a chart in 2000 for the intelligence program that included Mr. Atta's photograph and name.

The former contractor, James D. Smith, said that Mr. Atta's name and photograph were obtained through a private researcher in California who was paid to gather the information from contacts in the Middle East.

This is even weirder. A private researcher who gathered information from "contacts in the Middle East"? This could actually explain the naming confusion, since a researcher with subject matter expertise might very well figure out that Mohamed el-Amir and Mohamed Atta were the same person.

But none of this is data mining, which is what we've been told Able Danger was. It's plain old human intelligence. If a private researcher gathered information about, say, Egyptian nationals who visited Afghanistan in 1999, it's quite possible he would have come up with el-Amir/Atta's name. But a person like this wouldn't be working for the small and experimental Able Danger project, he'd be working for an intelligence agency.

So we're still left with an intriguing question: who first came up with Mohamed Atta's name? Did Able Danger use intelligence assets of its own, or did this researcher work for someone else? If so, who? And what did they do with the information?

Obviously, we're in wild speculation mode here. Take it all with a big grain of salt.

UPDATE: Miscellaneous corrections made. Atta was Egyptian, not Saudi, and his visa was issued with a surname of Atta, not el-Amir.

Kevin Drum 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TEACHING EVOLUTION....Reacting to poll numbers showing that the public overwhelmingly approves of teaching both evolution and Intelligent Design in public schools, Matt Yglesias writes a warning to the blogosphere:

When George W. Bush and Bill Frist had their respective "teach the controversy" moments, it seemed to me that most liberal bloggers took these as moments to simply point, sneer, and mock. But it's not such a great idea to mock a guy who has 55 percent of the public on his side when you have only 12 percent on yours. The evolution-only view is less popular than gay marriage, less popular than the abolition of the death penalty, and generally speaking one of the very least popular liberal cultural causes. We need to take this seriously and actually persuade some people or, rather, a lot of people that we're right.

This is good advice no matter what the issue, but at the same time, if you can't mock cretins in the blogosphere, where can you mock them?

More seriously, the problem here is how do you fight a view that's fundamentally a matter of faith, not rational argument? It's a tough question. The New York Times has been running a series of articles on ID (here, here, and here), for example, and they're genuinely problematical. It's true that part of the problem is that these pieces don't give the roots of the controversy the attention it deserves, but set that aside. The more basic problem is that reporters aren't supposed to be advocates and there's a limit to what they can do. Even if they had done a better job with these stories, the end result still would have been to validate evolution/ID as a genuine scientific controversy. The very existence of the stories does that.

In the end, I suspect that the best strategy is to continue fighting evolution fights normally at the local level, but to stop arguing about evolution per se at the national level and instead make the broader argument we ought to be making anyway: that scientists should decide what gets taught in science classes. Fundamentally, we should argue that anyone who wants to introduce dissenting views into any science curriculum should have to demonstrate that some bare minimum of the relevant scientific community let's say 5% for the sake of argument agrees that the dissenting views represent genuine scientific uncertainty. That's not a high bar. It doesn't even have to be 5% who support the dissenting view, only 5% who believe that it's a legitimate point of disagreement.

Or something along those lines. This, I suspect, would get a lot more public support than naive questions about ID vs. creationism. One way or another, the more we can take that particular issue off the table, the better off we'll be.

Kevin Drum 12:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 22, 2005
By: Benjamin Wallace-Wells

The case against the case against historically black colleges.Theres been a bit of discussion in the blogosphere recently about the very low graduation rates at historically black colleges, prompted by a New York Times story (Little Noticed Crisis at Black Colleges) printed on August 3. The Times reporter, Samuel G. Freedman, worried that these schools are graduating too few of their studentsonly 38% nationallyand indulged in some earnest, Times-style hand-wringing. The colleges themselves seemed to blame black culture: ''The single biggest factor is a lack of motivation, Dr. Jacqueline Fleming, the director of Texas Southern's academic center, told the Times. Their world is BET, ghetto rap, going to school dressed like you're going to a club. They're here because their grandmother said to be here, or because their parole officer said it was this or jail.''

This is obviously an important story for anyone concerned with the solid functioning of the meritocracyhistorically black schools (HB) serve an enormous number of students from educationally underserved African-American communities in the South, and the success or failure of these schools at graduating those students helps determine how many of them can enter the professional class. I think theres good reason to believe that the HB schools are actually doing a pretty good job. Theres a good case to be made that the main reason for the shockingly low graduation rates isnt race, or culture, or any lack of motivationit's simply that these schools tend to draw from very poor populations. (More below the fold.)

As we crunched the numbers for the upcoming (and totally spectacular!) Washington Monthly College Rankings, we noticed that a schools graduation rate correlated very closely with the percentage of its student body receiving Pell Grantsfederal funds that are the best available measure of how many poor students a given school enrolls. The statistical correlation was clear: The more poor students at a given school, the lower its graduation rate tended to be. Because of this, it seemed unfair to us to compare graduation rates universally: sure, Columbia graduates 92 percent of its students and UCLA only 87 percent, but that doesnt necessarily mean that Columbia is doing a better job. UCLAs students are much more likely to come from poor and working-class backgrounds, so its got a much more difficult job to do.

One of our goals for the project was to measure each colleges contribution to social mobility: How well was each college doing at taking poor kids and getting them college degrees? By running a statistical regression, we could determine what a given schools predicted graduation rate should be, based on the number of Pell Grant recipients. Penn State and Central Michigan, for instance, both have student bodies of which 25% receive Pell grantsthe same socioeconomic makeup. This means that both schools had identical predicted graduation rates60%.

But Penn State actually graduates 82% of its students, while Central Michigan graduates 42%. Even though they have similar student bodies socioeconomically, Penn State is doing something better than Central Michigan is doingPenn State is over-performing its predicted graduation rate, while Central Michigan is under-performing its predicted graduation rate. We compared each schools predicted graduation rate with its actual rate, and gave each school a score that indicates how much it over- or under-performs its predicted rate.

So back to the historically black colleges. One of the surprising things we found, especially given the recent spate of negative press, was that some HB schools did astoundingly well in our social mobility rankingsthat is, they graduated far higher proportions of their student bodies than most schools with similar socioeconomic distributions. South Carolina State (HB), for instance, finished fourth of all the schools in the country: its predicted graduation rate, given its high numbers of Pell recipients, was only 20%, but it actually graduates 49%. Jackson State (HB) finished sixth (predicted rate 11%; actual rate 37%). Even Texas Southern, Freedmans poster child for the non-achievement of historically black schools, did better than an average school would have: its predicted graduation rate is 14%; its actual rate is 15%. Every single one of the HB schools on our national universities list, in fact, outperformed its predicted graduation rate.

A few comparisons: The University of Memphis (not HB) has almost an identical portion of Pell Grant recipients as does Howard University (HB). Both have predicted graduation rates of 50% but Howard graduates 58% of its students and Memphis only 33%. South Carolina State (HB), where 65% of students receive Pell grants, has the same graduation rate as Ball State (not HB), where only 23% of students receive the federal payments.

So what to make of all this? Freedman is still right that 15% is an absurdly low portion of students for any college to graduate, and Texas Southern ought to be doing better. And our measure is admittedly not perfect. But if you account for the poverty of the incoming class, its hard to argue that the HB colleges as a whole are serving their students poorly. It seems more likely that there is something truly heroic happening at Jackson State, which has the highest portion of its students receiving Pell grants of any of the 245 national universities in the countrythe poorest population of any school there is--and yet still manages to graduate 37% of its students. The low graduation rates at the HB schools seem to me far less a function of poor educational quality, or of some vague but pernicious racially culture of failure, than a simple matter of socioeconomic class. The HB colleges, many of which enroll students who have few other options for higher education, seem to be doing pretty well with what theyve got.

One last caveat: Freedman notes that black students at HB schools graduate at much lower rates than do black students at elite schools. I suspect that this is at least in part due to class differences: my guess is that the black students who enroll at Cornell come from much wealthier backgrounds than those that enroll at Alabama A&M. But the data are not precise enough to know either way: We dont know the average parental income level for blacks at each university. So it may be, as the Times article implies, that it makes more sense for a black parent to send their child to an integrated school than to an HB college. But I think my larger point stands: Given their inputs, the HB colleges are actually doing a good job at graduating their students.

For more of this kind of thing, of course, pick up the September issue of the Washington Monthly.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells 6:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ABLE DANGER JUMPS THE SHARK....The Able Danger story is now officially FUBAR. Somebody is either brazenly lying or else bending the truth so far that it's no longer even recognizable. Laura Rozen has the details, and they include a possible link to Saudi Arabia and a Bush administration coverup. Good times!

POSTSCRIPT: Navy Captain Scott Phillpott, the other guy who briefed the 9/11 Commission, is supposedly going public today on Fox at 7 pm Eastern time. Will he spill the top secret beans?

Kevin Drum 6:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BLOGOVERSARY....By the way, Happy Blogoversary to me! Today marks my third year as a blogger.

Kevin Drum 6:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?....I'll be damned. Pat Robertson really did call for the assassination of Venezuelan president Hugo Chvez. Via Media Matters:

You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war....We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.

Excuse me for a second while I peruse my Bible. Was there a part I missed where Jesus taught the parable about killing people who make trouble for you?

Kevin Drum 6:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE BEST HOPE FOR IRAQ....Juan Cole and Suzanne Nossel argue today that immediate withdrawal from Iraq would be a disaster: it would leave Iraq in chaos, probably instigate a civil war, provide a safe haven for terrorism, and destabilize the entire Middle East.

Since I've been writing quite a bit about withdrawal from Iraq lately, there's something I should clear up. Here it is: I agree with their assessment. That's exactly what would happen if we withdrew immediately, and we have both a moral and a practical obligation to do everything we can to prevent it. It would be the worst possible outcome for both the Iraqi people and the security of the United States.

The question is: given the actual facts on the ground today, what's the best way to avoid this turn of events? I think a publicly announced phased withdrawal plan is our best hope.

Consider this. By the end of 2007 we will have been in Iraq for nearly five years. At that point, if things have gotten substantially better and the insurgency is either beaten or considerably weakened, then we can leave. Conversely, if things aren't any better, then it means we've lost. If we can't achieve substantial improvement in five years, then we just can't do it, and we might as well leave.

In other words, by the end of 2007 we're going to leave one way or the other. That being the case, why not announce it publicly? It would partially demotivate the insurgency by giving them a firm promise that we don't plan to occupy Iraq forever, it would help gain international support for the rebuilding effort, it would force the Iraqi government to take the training of its security forces seriously, and it would be popular with both the Iraqi and American public. What's more, it would allow the Pentagon to plan its withdrawal methodically, instead of either being caught in a disastrous internal meltdown or finding itself in the middle of a savage civil war.

For my part, I'm partial to a plan that gradually draws down our forces based primarily (but not exclusively) on firm goals for training Iraq troops which should be our overwhelmingly most important task, instead of the muddled excuse-making machine it apparently is today. Such a plan would most likely be based on substantive goals along the way (training, elections, etc.), but would have a hard end date of, say, December 2007. The end state might, as Juan Cole suggests, continue to involve U.S. air support and military advisement, but no ground troops and no permanent bases. Reconstruction aid should remain as generous as possible.

Needless to say, I'm open to suggestions on the details. But let's have the conversation.

Kevin Drum 3:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MWG ALERT....Here's the latest missing white girl story. And just in case you don't get the point, she's "a beautiful girl, an aspiring model," says the chirpy Fox anchor drone. It could be a stalking case, folks!

Will Julie Popovich be the next Natalee? Stay tuned. Stay very tuned.

Kevin Drum 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ABLE DANGER FOLLOWUP....Both sides upped the ante today. On the Curt Weldon/Tony Shaffer side, they are now claiming that Shaffer's original anonymous meeting with the New York Times was also attended by "members of the Able Danger team" (who apparently remained not only anonymous but entirely unreferenced). In other words, it wasn't just Shaffer talking: other members of the team were there to back up his contention that Able Danger had identified Mohamed Atta a year before 9/11.

The Pentagon, for its part, has broken its silence and says that its research so far has not verified any of Shaffer's claims and specifically not his claim that Able Danger ID'd Atta.

Somebody's lying, no? There's less and less room for any kind of fudging here.

Kevin Drum 12:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

JUAN COLE'S WITHDRAWAL PLAN....Juan Cole, who rightly believes that immediate withdrawal from Iraq would almost certainly lead to a bloody and savage civil war, has a 10-point proposal for a withdrawal plan that he thinks would avoid that. Very roughly, the plan has two parts:

  1. Remove U.S. troops from urban areas immediately and from the rest of Iraq sometime after that. However, continue to offer close air support and other limited military assistance to prevent large-scale civil war between massed troops and to help ensure the stability of the elected government.

  2. In return, demand some changes in Iraqi law that would encourage stability, and participate in regular 6+2 meetings of surrounding countries "to help put Iraq back on its feet through diplomacy and multilateral aid."

It's worth a look. I have some doubts that either the military or the civil side of his plan is workable, but at least it sets out a framework for discussion. Whether you like his plan or not, it's the kind of thing serious withdrawal supporters should be talking about.

Kevin Drum 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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PROTECTING YOUR PERSONAL INFORMATION....NOT....Is ChoicePoint a piece of work or what? Here's how they've responded to the theft of hundreds of thousands of private consumer records from their database:

Elizabeth Rosen was plenty angry when ChoicePoint Inc. sent her a form letter acknowledging that crooks might have perused some of her most sensitive personal and financial data.

But the Hollywood nurse was flabbergasted when the company, one of the nation's largest collectors of consumer records, also offered to sell her some of the same information so she could see what might have been compromised.

....Rosen's experience highlights a paradox in the recent string of thefts of personal information: Many of the same companies responsible for safeguarding reams of sensitive data that have fallen into the hands of scammers are now trying to cash in by pledging to protect consumers' privacy.

Information brokers infiltrated by con artists, banks that have lost unencrypted financial data and peddlers of online background checks are pitching fraud-detection plans that cost from $25 a year to more than $150.

Information collection agencies should be required by law to do everything in those "fraud-detection plans" and more as a normal course of business. And they would, too, if the cost of losing data were made high enough.

Someday there's going to be an unholy consumer backlash against these guys, and they're going to deserve every last bit of it. The gall is simply beyond belief.

Kevin Drum 11:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE WASHINGTON MONTHLY COLLEGE RANKINGS....In what college ranking does UCLA come out ahead of Harvard? Texas A&M over Yale?

No, football has nothing to do with it. The difference between other rankings and the Washington Monthly College Rankings is that ours are dedicated not to which universities are best for you, but which universities are best for the country.

All of the existing college rankings have the same aim to help overwhelmed parents and students sift through the thousands of colleges and universities in this country by giving them some yardstick for judging the best schools....Parents who will shell out tens of thousands of dollars to put their teenagers through college need to know they are spending their money wisely.

How much more important, then, is it for taxpayers to know that their money in the form of billions of dollars of research grants and student aid is being put to good use? These are institutions, after all, that produce most of the country's cutting-edge scientific research and are therefore indirectly responsible for much of our national wealth and prosperity. They are the path to the American dream, the surest route for hard-working poor kids to achieve a better life in a changing economy. And they shape, in profound and subtle ways, students' ideas about American society and their place in it. It seemed obvious to us that these heavily subsidized institutions ought to be graded on how well they perform in these roles, so we set out to create the first annual Washington Monthly College Rankings.

So how did your alma mater do? Click the link to to see how we came up with our rankings, plus previews of the top 30 national universities and the top 30 liberal arts colleges. The full list of 445 rankings is in the print magazine, coming soon to a newsstand near you!

UPDATE: Jay Mathews of the Washington Post comments here.

Kevin Drum 12:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 21, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

PEAK OIL IN THE TIMES....You can never get tired of peak oil, can you? Peter Maass has a pretty good New York Times Magazine article today about peak oil that covers a lot of familiar ground for regular readers, but also makes an important point more directly than I did in my piece a couple of months ago. It comes from Sadad al-Husseini, who retired last year after serving as Saudi Aramco's top executive for exploration and production:

"You look at the globe and ask, 'Where are the big increments?' and there's hardly anything but Saudi Arabia," he said...."The problem is that you go from 79 million barrels a day in 2002 to 82.5 in 2003 to 84.5 in 2004. You're leaping by two million to three million a year, and if you have to cover declines, that's another four to five million."

In other words, if demand and depletion patterns continue, every year the world will need to open enough fields or wells to pump an additional six to eight million barrels a day at least two million new barrels a day to meet the rising demand and at least four million to compensate for the declining production of existing fields. "That's like a whole new Saudi Arabia every couple of years," Husseini said. "It can't be done indefinitely. It's not sustainable."

That's the key issue. There's no argument that there are new oil fields waiting to be developed and new technologies waiting to be deployed. The question is whether new drilling can produce an extra 6 million barrels a day of production every single year for the next 20 or 30 years. Past history suggests probably not.

On the other hand, I think Maass pays too little attention to another key issue: the convergence of supply and demand. Even if we're close to peak oil, it's true that supply and demand will be brought together in a natural way by higher oil prices and high oil prices are only bad, not disastrous. At the same time, market forces will also keep supply and demand in lockstep, and that means that even a modest disruption in supply has the potential to cause an oil shock. We can live with high oil prices in fact, a gradual but steady rise in oil prices is probably a good thing but an oil shock is a different matter entirely, and it's something that the free market can't deal with. Speaking for myself, I'd just as soon not go through 1979-82 again. Those weren't fun times.

Kevin Drum 9:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DISABILITY BLUES....Peter Gosselin, who has written an excellent series of stories about increasing income volatility and the fraying of the safety net that used to protect the poor from its worst effects, is back today with a story about a part of that fraying safety net that affects the middle class as well:

When middle-class Americans talk about safety nets, they usually mean such things as food stamps or housing subsidies public assistance on which generally only the poor depend....But...a key component of working Americans' protective shield fails with unnerving regularity.

Disability insurance now carried by more than 50 million Americans generally promises to replace at least half of a person's wages in case of illness or injury. However, in a substantial number of cases, especially those involving workers with long-term or permanent disabilities, it doesn't deliver.

The chief reason and one that affects not only disability but the whole universe of employer-provided benefits is a series of court decisions dealing with the federal benefits law known as ERISA. The decisions have prevented states from extending almost any form of consumer protection to these benefits, and have severely limited individuals' ability to successfully sue their insurers.

"People who file disability claims today are worse off than they were two or three decades ago," said Judge William M. Acker Jr., who was appointed to the U.S. District Court in Alabama by President Reagan.

Basically, insurance companies are doing their best to move as many policies as possible under ERISA, which makes them virtually invulnerable to lawsuits for unfairly denying benefits. Even if you sue and win, you'll typically get only back payments, not punitive or compensatory damages or even legal fees. This means that insurance companies have plenty of incentive to aggressively deny benefits and virtually no incentive not to.

As they say, read the whole thing.

Kevin Drum 6:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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CAN WE WIN IN IRAQ?....Is it time to announce a withdrawal plan for Iraq? Or is there still a chance that an open-ended commitment there will eventually create a semi-stable, semi-liberal, semi-democratic state?

I don't think there's any question that we owed the Iraqi people a sustained and intense effort to rebuild their country. We are, after all, the ones who invaded and occupied it in a war of choice. But several months ago I concluded that we were chasing a lost cause in Iraq, and that's why I started talking openly about withdrawal back in June.

But where did my conclusion come from? Since I'm using this blog as a way to work out my own thinking in public, I should explain my thought processes. So here's a story. It's not a fascinating story quite the opposite, in fact but it is mine, and it partly explains why I think the way I do. Here it is:

Several years ago, the company I worked for decided to enter a new product area. After several months of investigation, we bought some technology, put a team of engineers to work, and began hammering out our offering. We were feeling optimistic.

A year later, after having learned a lot, I finally decided to have a talk with our CEO. I told him we needed to shut the project down. A month after we had started up, a major new competitor had entered the market with a solid product that had quickly become the dominant player. What's more, it turned out the market we were entering wasn't growing as fast as we had thought, and competing technologies were improving faster than we had expected. Given a weak market and entrenched competition, the chances of success were minimal even if our product turned out to be great.

Our CEO decided to continue the project, and six months later we introduced v1.0. As it turned out, the engineering team had done a good job and the product was technically sound. Initial reaction from our distribution channel was decent, and a promotional campaign boosted its second quarter of sales to a healthy level. Maybe this thing was going to work after all!

But that was the end of it. The next quarter sales dropped, and the quarter after that they dropped again. The field was too crowded, our main competitor had a v3.0 product out by then that was substantially better than ours, overall market growth was nearly zero, and our own sales force was unenthusiastic about our prospects. A couple of months later we killed the product.

This scenario happened with other products as well. No company bats a thousand, and there always comes a point when you have to shut down poorly performing projects.

But what I learned over a couple of decades of product management was this: pay attention to big trends, not to the daily ups and downs. If the big trends are in your favor (growing market, solid product), individual setbacks shouldn't panic you as long as your overall execution is respectable. Sure, it's a drag to lose a big deal or miss a launch deadline, but those things won't kill you if you're working in a broadly healthy business environment.

Conversely, if the big trends are against you, don't kid yourself into complacency by cherry picking minor pieces of good news. Thursday's sales were up! We just got a callback on that big IRS bid!

That's where we are with Iraq. Yes, the constitutional deadlock might end. And we might have individual military successes here and there. But the big trends are inescapably against us. The insurgency is not dying down and shows no signs of doing so. American forces are viewed as occupiers. Ethnic tensions continue to boil barely below the surface. Rebuilding is going so slowly as to be almost invisible. We're undermanned, and additional troops are not in the cards from either the U.S. or the rest of the world. Militias are running broad swaths of the country and the training of Iraqi security forces is obviously going poorly. The almost certain end state is either civil war, an Islamic state, or both.

One of the biggest differences between good managers and bad managers is that good managers are willing to face up to bad news and act on it. That's what needs to happen here. There are too many big trends working against us to allow us to pretend that a few schoolhouses and half a dozen squads of Iraqi MPs are going to turn the tide.

So: we can wait until things get even worse and withdrawal becomes even more painful, or we can announce a plan now that makes the best of a bad situation and encourages the best outcome still plausibly open to us. We can put specific goals and specific timetables in place, do our level best to meet them, and then leave. Or we can wait until disaster forces us out. But don't let minor events fool you. One way or another, we'll be gone soon. Shouldn't we do it on our terms?

UPDATE: Too many people were getting hung up on "wrecked" in the second paragraph, so I changed it to "invaded and occupied." We obviously wrecked Iraq's political infrastructure, but in any case, my only point was that since we're the ones who invaded, we're also the ones responsible for helping to rebuild.

Kevin Drum 3:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE ANTI-WAR RIGHT GROWS....Over at National Review Online, another conservative sours on the war. Andy McCarthy says, "this is where I get off the bus."

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WHO'S AFRAID OF IRAQ'S NUKES?....We know now that Saddam Hussein shut down his nuclear weapons program after 1991 and never started it back up. Back in 2003, however, when we first entered Baghdad, we didn't. The scientists and technicians who were the backbone of his earlier program should have been prime targets for U.S. intelligence.

They weren't. No one made any effort to find these people, and to make matters worse, the few who tried to turn themselves in were treated shoddily. The result is that hundreds of Iraqi nuclear scientists quietly disappeared and are now....somewhere. Kurt Pitzer reports in Mother Jones:

"Before we invaded, there was no evidence that Iraq had any plan or incentive to proliferate," says former CIA analyst Ray McGovern. "Now, my God, we have a magnet attracting...jihadists to a place where the WMD expertise is suddenly unprotected.

....During the 1990s, the International Atomic Energy Agency and other watchdog groups compiled lists of key participants in Saddam's WMD programs. The IAEA roll call alone included about 2,000 names. One of the few that has been made public is that of Dr. Faris Abdul Aziz, a mild-mannered engineer who oversaw a staff of more than 200 working on the nuclear centrifuge program....Today, no one seems to know where he is. "We've been trying to get in touch with these guys for months," Albright says. "But by now they're probably so jaded and suspicious that they want nothing to do with the U.S."

An even greater concern is the flight risk posed by scientists one level down....A source with close ties to intelligence on the issue recently told me of the case of a female scientist who worked in Saddam's centrifuge program, most likely Dr. Widad Hattam al-Jabbouri...."From what we have learned she has ended up at a university in Syria," the source said. "Apparently the Syrians basically set up a refuge for senior scientists, especially those with Baathist connections, who couldn't get any work in Iraq."

Pitzer and Mahdi Obeidi, who headed Saddam's bombmaking program, are on Mother Jones Radio right now (1 pm Eastern, 10 am Pacific). You can check it out at your local Air America affiliate.

Kevin Drum 12:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE FALL OF CONSERVATISM?....Stephen Bainbridge writes:

It's time for us conservatives to face facts. George W. Bush has pissed away the conservative moment by pursuing a war of choice via policies that border on the criminally incompetent....

Needless to say, I don't share Steve's dismay that George Bush has pissed away the conservative movement, but I think he may well be right that this will turn out to be Bush's legacy. In fact, I think Bush has pissed away the neocon movement too, since the most likely outcome of the Iraq war is an American populace that turns even more strongly against foreign adventurism than it did after Vietnam.

Still, perhaps Steve should take heart. After all, Democrats might fail to take advantage of Bush's folly. Hard to believe, I know....

Kevin Drum 2:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 20, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ AND THE INSURGENCY....A couple of days ago I proposed that we should publicly announce a firm plan for withdrawal from Iraq. One reason for this, I suggested, was that the open-ended presence of American troops was helping to fuel the very insurgency that we're trying to fight. Apparently I'm not alone in thinking this:

General Peter Cosgrove, former head of the Australian Defence Force: "I think we've got to train the Iraqis as quickly as we can and to a point where we take one of the focal points of terrorist motivation away and that is foreign troops. When there is an adequate Iraqi security force, foreign troops leave. If we could get that done by the end of 2006 that would be really good."

Nora Bensahel, counterinsurgency expert at RAND Corp.: "History suggests that outside powers have a very poor record in counterinsurgency operations because the presence of outside forces often adds fuel to the fire of the insurgents' cause. Only local residents possess the knowledge and determination needed to prevail."

Porter Goss, CIA Director: "Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists."

Thamir Al Adhami, spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs: "I tend to believe that [you need] to give [the insurgents] at least a light at the end of the tunnel. If you say, 'We are staying as long as it takes,' well, God knows how long it will take. That means, 'We are staying here permanently.'"

Robert Pape, author of Dying to Win: "The operation in Iraq has stimulated suicide terrorism and has given suicide terrorism a new lease on life....Before our invasion, Iraq never had a suicide-terrorist attack in its history. Never....Every year that the United States has stationed 150,000 combat troops in Iraq, suicide terrorism has doubled."

None of these people is suggesting that we should withdraw immediately. Neither am I. But if we announce a plan for withdrawal based partly on hard objectives not vague "when the job is done" pronouncements and partly on a hard end date of, say, 2007, that would mean that we had spent nearly five years occupying Iraq and three years training Iraqi security forces. Quite aside from operational issues that will require us to start drawing down our troops before then anyway, let's face it: if we haven't achieved success in five years, we're never going to achieve it.

That being the case, why not give ourselves a leg up by announcing our plans now? Not only would it put us in control of our own destiny, but there's a good chance that it would also splinter apart a substantial fraction of the insurgents and their supporters, some of whom are motivated by a belief that we plan to be a permanent occupying force. A firm, credible plan for withdrawal would at least partially pull the fangs of the insurgency and probably increase our chance of eventual success in Iraq. Why not take it?

Kevin Drum 10:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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IRAQ'S NUKES....Mother Jones Radio, a weekly show on Air America, will devote tomorrow's program to an enduring question: if the Bush administration was genuinely worried about Iraq's WMD before the war and especially about Iraq's nuclear program why did they show so little interest in Iraq's nukes after the war? From the promo on their blog:

The Iraqi scientists from Saddam Hussein's nuclear and biological weapons programs posed a huge risk to international safety after Saddam's fall. So why did the Bush administration refuse to track down the scientists after the 2003 invasion of Iraq? Mother Jones reports that all but three of Saddam's top 200-some nuclear scientists are missing.

Mother Jones Radio interviews Dr. Mahdi Obeidi, the "mastermind of Saddam Hussein's former nuclear centrifuge program," and the only Iraqi nuclear scientist known to have been granted refuge in the U.S. since the invasion. Joining him in this exclusive interview are David Albright, former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, and Kurt Pitzer, the author of Mother Jones' September 2005 cover story on the missing scientists. MotherJones.com will release Pitzer's article, "In the Garden of Armageddon," simultaneously with the radio broadcast on Sunday, August 21.

I've read an advance copy of the magazine article, and it's good. More about that tomorrow. In the meantime, the show itself airs Sunday at 1 pm Eastern time, 10 am Pacific on your local Air America affiliate. It might be worth checking out.

Kevin Drum 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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DECONSTRUCTING DISCOVERY....Denis Hayes, director of the Bullitt Foundation, describes the Discovery Institute sarcastically as

the institutional love child of Ayn Rand and Jerry Falwell.

That's wrong on so many levels and yet so right that it should be engraved on a plaque somewhere.

The rest of the article, about how Discovery morphed from a wonkish foundation concerned with regional issues into a money-driven shill for rich Christian conservatives, is a decent introduction to the organization that's been more responsible than any other for promoting Intelligent Design to a credulous world. It's worth reading if this story is new to you.

Alternatively, you can wait a couple of weeks and read Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science. Chapter 11 is a more comprehensive account of the whole sad tale.

Kevin Drum 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SHAFFER AND ATTA....Last night I planned to write another post about discrepancies in Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer's allegations about the Able Danger program, but I decided to give it a rest. Today, though, Andy McCarthy at The Corner writes the post for me, so go take a look.

Nickel version: Shaffer's most explosive charge is that he tried to set up meetings with the FBI to tell them about Mohamed Atta a year before 9/11. Now, however, he says he didn't even know Able Danger had identified Atta until other team members told him about it after 9/11. Needless to say, something doesn't add up here. For the record, here are two different versions of his story. First, from GSN two weeks ago:

[Shaffer] recalled carrying documents to the offices of Able Danger, which was being run by the Special Operations Command, headquartered in Tampa, FL. The documents included a photo of Mohammed Atta supplied by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and described Attas relationship with Osama bin Laden.

Second, from the New York Post on Thursday:

Shaffer said Atta's name didn't ring a bell when he learned the hijackers' names after 9/11. But he got "a sinking feeling in my stomach" when the woman Ph.D. in charge of Able Danger's data analysis told him Atta was one of those who had been identified as a likely al Qaeda terrorist by Able Danger.

"My friend the doctor [Ph.D.] who did all the charts and ran the technology showed me the chart and said, 'Look, we had this, we knew them, we knew this.' And it was a sinking feeling, it was like, 'Oh my God, you know. We could have done something.'"

In the first version, Shaffer personally remembers handling documents with Atta's name, picture, and position on the al-Qaeda org chart a year before 9/11. In the second version, he's never even heard of Atta until after 9/11. It sounds like Shaffer might have a bad habit of reconstructing a personal role in events based on things other people told him long after the events themselves happened. For his sake, I hope he never does this under oath.

UPDATE: The Corner also has more on Curt Weldon. His story seems to be increasingly shaky too.

Kevin Drum 1:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 19, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SHAFFER AND THE 9/11 COMMISSION....One of the key allegations made by Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer in the Able Danger affair is that even though he specifically told the 9/11 Commission that Able Danger had identified Mohamed Atta, they failed to follow up on it. Today he recanted that allegation. Here's the chronology:

August 8: "[Shaffer] said he was among a group that briefed Mr. Zelikow and at least three other members of the Sept. 11 commission staff about Able Danger when they visited the Afghanistan-Pakistan region in October 2003. [Shaffer] said he had explicitly mentioned Mr. Atta as a member of a Qaeda cell in the United States."

August 12: "As with their other meetings, Commission staff promptly prepared a memorandum for the record. That memorandum, prepared at the time, does not record any mention of Mohamed Atta or any of the other future hijackers, or any suggestion that their identities were known to anyone at DOD before 9/11."

August 16: "Colonel Shaffer said that he had provided information about Able Danger and its identification of Mr. Atta in a private meeting in October 2003 with members of the Sept. 11 commission staff when they visited Afghanistan, where he was then serving."

August 19: "Shaffer conceded that during his own personal briefing of Sept. 11 commission staffers in Afghanistan in Oct. 2003, he didn't specifically name the terrorists. Instead, he detailed how Able Danger had uncovered information about three terror cells with the use of then-advanced data-mining techniques."

Shaffer has been making the same claim for nearly two weeks, a claim that he repeated even after the 9/11 Commission had denied it. Today he had a change of heart.

Fine. But doesn't this also throw into doubt Shaffer's claim that Able Danger identified Atta prior to 9/11? After all, if Able Danger really did ID Atta complete with a picture and his position in the al-Qaeda organization it's awfully hard to believe that Shaffer wouldn't have mentioned that when he briefed the 9/11 Commission, isn't it?

Overall, this is not doing much for Shaffer's credibility, especially since he's also maddeningly vague about exactly what he saw vs. what other people later told him they saw. I wonder how accurate the rest of his recollections are?

Kevin Drum 9:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ROBERTS AND WOMEN....Jeanne has a good post about John Roberts today. She pretty much echoes my thinking.

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LINGUISTICS LESSONS....The latest from Down Under:

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has labeled "absurd" a directive requiring security guards at the country's Parliament House to stop addressing visitors and lawmakers as "mate."

....Hilary Penfold, secretary for the Department of Parliamentary Services, said the ban was intended to ensure staff did not offend visitors.

Hmmm. It doesn't sound like this would offend anyone. Unless maybe it was a foreign visitor who got fooled by the local accent.

Take me, for example. The first time I visited Australia I hopped into a cab and then listened dumbfounded as the driver immediately launched into a lengthy stream of complaints. He complained about the blacks who ran the taxi stand, the blacks who stole fares from him, the blacks who fouled up the roads with their bad driving, and all the blacks who just generally made everyone's lives miserable.

Holy God, I thought, did I just happen to get the most racist taxi driver in all of Sydney? Or are all Australians like this?

Halfway to the hotel, I finally figured out that he was complaining about "blokes," not "blacks." The guy who ran the taxi stand (and thus controlled the flow of taxis) really was black, though, which probably contributed to my confusion. At any rate, it turned out that my driver was just an ordinary fellow complaining cheerfully about pretty much everything. No harm done.

Could the same thing could happen with "mate"? Feel free to guess in comments.

Kevin Drum 2:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ABLE DANGER UPDATE....Over at The Corner, Andy McCarthy says: "Fox News reported this morning that the Defense Department is going to deny the central Able Danger allegation that Mohammed Atta (and, presumably, the three other hijackers who have been linked to this controversy) were identified prior to the 9/11 attacks." If this is true, I sure hope they offer some evidence for this. I'm not sure anyone is willing to just take their word for it.

On a related subject, former 9/11 commissioner Tim Roemer thinks there's something screwy about the Able Danger timeline. Supposedly, the Able Danger team produced a chart that included Mohamed Atta's name and picture, but according to Fox News, Roemer wondered "how Able Danger got a photo of Atta in 2000 for its alleged chart of terrorists when he had not yet applied for a U.S. visa."

The problem here is that the Able Danger timeline is fuzzy. The original GSN article says that Able Danger tried (but failed) to turn over its information to the FBI "during the weeks leading up to the 2000 presidential election." That means October 2000. But when was the chart actually created? Various media accounts have placed it in both 1999 and 2000, and the original New York Times story placed it in the "summer of 2000." However, the 9/11 Commission says that it was told that "the relevant material dated from February through April 2000, and that it showed Mohamed Atta to be a member of an al Qaeda cell located in Brooklyn."

Since 9/11, of course, we have retrieved every scrap of information ever known about Mohamed Atta, so we know what information would have been available to the Able Danger data mining operation. And what we know is that Mohamed Atta sent his first email to friends in the U.S. in March 2000 and received his first U.S. visa on May 18, 2000. Moreover, that was the first time he had ever gone by the name "Mohamed Atta." His full name is "Mohamed Mohamed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta," and prior to 2000 he went by "Mohamed el-Amir."

So the precise timeline is pretty crucial here. The chart could conceivably have been put together in the summer of 2000, since a visa picture and other information about Atta was (barely) available by then. Anything earlier seems to be out of the question.

As usual, stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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IRAQ AND THE HAWKS....Trackbacks no longer function here at Washington Monthly HQ, so I don't have any kind of comprehensive list of reactions to last night's post asking liberal hawks for something besides "stay the course" as a plan for Iraq. However, here are a few posts that I've come across. Some are direct responses and some just happen to be about the subject at hand:

I'll update this later today if anyone else has something interesting to say.

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By: Kevin Drum

CAMP CASEY....OC Weekly's Rebecca Schoenkopf takes a trip to Crawford and writes about what the scene at Camp Casey is like:

A lot is being made on the blogs and on the talk shows about the co-opting of Cindy Sheehan by the left. These are the fringe groups, theyre snarling, the far left! and yeah, PETA was there. But a lot of the guys there were Vietnam vets, while the rest were pretty middle-aged and wholesome, middle-class and earnest. People ate meat, and smoked cigarettes, and drove cars with internal combustion engines. Aside from the fact that there were recycling bins, even in the middle of a field, it really was awfully mainstream and with more than half of Americans now saying Iraq wasnt worth it, now the mainstream is us. Of course, at Sundays lunch at the Peace House a gorgeous Middle Eastern buffet, hosted by a group of Iraqi-Americans who fed the multitudes like Jesus with loaves and fishes I did have a particularly crunchy exchange....

Chris Nolan and LA Weekly's Marc Cooper have a somewhat different take. Meanwhile, Media Matters continues to document the almost unbelievable savagery of the ongoing conservative smears of Cindy Sheehan.

Kevin Drum 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KEVIN DRUM PROFILE....For the past couple of years Norm Geras has been posting short Q&A profiles of fellow bloggers over at Normblog. A few weeks ago he told me that if I answered his questionnaire I could be profile #100, so naturally I agreed. The results are here. Enjoy.

Kevin Drum 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ AND THE LIBERAL HAWKS....I don't want to turn this thread into a Marshall Wittman bashing session, but one of the reasons I started supporting the idea of a scheduled withdrawal from Iraq a couple of months ago was because of posts like this:

The Bushies have clearly bungled the occupation of Iraq....never had a coherent or an effective strategy....disastrous post-war period....The public is rightly fed-up with the status quo.

And yet:

President Bush....owes the American people an explanation....he should provide us with a new victory strategy there....There are no easy solutions in Iraq....Democrats should relentlessly criticize the Administration for the mishandling of the war. But don't play into the hands of...Zarqawi....

Basically, Wittman is saying that Iraq is FUBAR and Democrats should complain loudly about it, but we should stay there anyway. Similarly, Ed Kilgore suggests that there are plenty of alternatives between a fixed timetable for withdrawal and Bush's stay-the-course-til-doomsday path but doesn't say what they are. Greg Djerejian says the "status quo is becoming increasingly untenable" and admits that no one is convincingly explaining how we can beat the insurgents but nonetheless hammers against the idea of any kind of near-term withdrawal.

If these folks were wingnuts, I'd just ignore them. But they aren't. They're people I respect. Yet they, and many people like them, keep telling us that we need to stay in Iraq even though they seemingly agree that no one has a credible plan for accomplishing our goals there. This doesn't make any sense. Either you believe that there's a way we can win in Iraq a real way that involves the leadership of George Bush and his staff, not some fantasy scenario in which he suddenly turns into the reincarnation of FDR or you don't. And the only reason to stay in Iraq is if you think we can win.

So: if you do believe we can win in Iraq, let's hear what you mean by "win" and how you think we can do it, and let's hear it in clear and compelling declarative sentences. "Stay the course" isn't enough. What Bush is doing now obviously isn't working, so what would you do that's significantly different?

Conversely, if you don't believe we can win in Iraq, and you're only suggesting we stay there because you can't stand the thought of "looking weak," then your moral compass needs some serious adjustment.

My mind is not irreversibly made up on this. But no one, neither Democrat nor Republican, has presented a convincing plan for winning in Iraq under the present circumstances. The insurgency is not going to give up, the Army doesn't seem to have any kind of consistent commitment to using counterinsurgency techniques against it, we don't know for sure that they'd work anyway, and let's face it: the track record of major powers beating large-scale overseas insurgencies is close to zero in the past half century. So what's the plan?

I happen to think a timed withdrawal is probably the best bet left to us, although I admit that I suspect Iraq is going to end up in chaos no matter what we do. That would be a disaster, but if we can't stop it anyway there's no point in making things worse by staying. For now, that's pretty much where I'm at, and anyone who disagrees really needs to give the chin scratching a rest and tell us clearly and concisely what they'd do differently to turn the tide in this war. Time has run out.

UPDATE: Some responses are here.

Kevin Drum 1:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

INCREASE YOUR IQ BY BLOGGING!....If you're a blogger and your significant other ever gives you grief about the amount of time you spend on your hobby, this post called "Brain of the Blogger is for you. It's written by a pair of doctors who are "strong advocates for neurologically-based approaches to learning," and they've written a post crediting blogging with doing everything short of curing cancer. Blogs promote critical thinking, analytical thinking, creative thinking, intuitive thinking, associational thinking, and analogical thinking. Blogs also increase access and exposure to quality information and combine the best of solitary reflection and social interaction. Take that, video games!

This is all via Ann Althouse, who says, "I feel that I came to blogging with a brain ready to do exactly this and previously severely frustrated by an inability to do this." Oddly enough, that's exactly how I feel. I've been doing writing of all kinds my whole life technical writing, marketing writing, newsletter writing, newspaper writing, term paper writing, copywriting, you name it but from practically the first day I did it, blogging felt like it fit my brain perfectly. For some reason, it's the perfect form of writing for me.

Kevin Drum 12:07 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 18, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

MORE WITHDRAWAL NOISES....I know that Chuck Hagel has been critical of our Iraq policy for a while, but has he now decided to endorse withdrawal as our only option?

Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, acknowledged the U.S. military presence was becoming harder and harder to justify. He believes Iraq faces a serious danger of civil war that would threaten Middle East stability, and said there is little Washington can do to avert this.

"We are seen as occupiers, we are targets. We have got to get out. I don't think we can sustain our current policy, nor do I think we should," he said at one stop.

I don't follow Hagel closely enough to know if this is the first time he's said this, but it doesn't sound like anything I've heard from him before. In the past, hasn't he mostly suggested that we need a bigger effort in order to succeed in Iraq?

Kevin Drum 4:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC vs. PRIVATE....Atrios links to the following on-air admission from Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: What I keep doing here is asking people on and off camera who come on this program, high-ranking officers, enlisted, former officers. I get sometimes, not all the time, two different versions, the version they give me on the air and the version they give me the minute when we're off the air.

The version they give me when we're on the air is gung-ho, we're doing the right thing, everything is moving along. The version they give me off the air is, Rumsfeld is crazy. There aren't enough troops over there. We're not taking this seriously enough, or, we shouldn't be there, sometimes.

I heard an identical story a couple of days ago. A well respected reporter who's spent a lot of time in Iraq says he'll get email all day long from the generals telling him how screwed up things are and how badly the mission is going, but when the afternoon briefing rolls around, these same guys are smiling for the cameras and telling everyone that everything is going great.

Question: are there any reporters who are more optimistic in private than they are in public? As near as I can tell, it's 100% the opposite. Despite the griping of the pro-war blogosphere, most of them are actually delivering a more positive story to their readers and listeners than events on the ground justify.

Kevin Drum 4:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE SPIKE....Liz Cox Barrett writes today that reporters frequently fail to mention their own role in media-driven controversies. Over at CJR, she draws attention to a small but telling example of this:

[John] Roberts Hometown Draws Scrutiny, reads the headline on Tom Coyne and Ashley M. Hehrs Associated Press piece today.

Draws scrutiny from whom, you ask? Have pro- or anti-Roberts interest groups been digging around the nominees hometown for oppo research purposes? Are members of the Senate Judiciary Committee taking a hard look at Roberts childhood as they prepare for his confirmation hearings next month? If so, Coyne and Hehr dont mention it. Indeed there is no evidence of anyone scrutinizing Long Beach, Indiana in Coyne and Hehrs piece apart from Coyne and Hehr themselves.

This seems like a pretty sad excuse for a story. I suspect it's one of those cases where the reporters just couldn't stand the thought of spiking a story they'd spent a bunch of time on, even though they didn't really come up with anything interesting. But sometimes, the spike is the right place for a story.

Kevin Drum 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ABLE DANGER UPDATE....Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer has gone public as the DIA liason to the Able Danger program that supposedly ID'd Mohamed Atta a year before 9/11, and the Navy officer who briefed the 9/11 Commission about Able Danger has apparently also been identified. Today, Shaffer says he thinks a few others will go public too:

A naval officer has also told reporters that he alerted the 9/11 commission about Able Danger but was ignored.

He hasn't gone public, but The Associated Press yesterday identified him as Capt. Scott Phillpott, an expert in futuristic naval warfare.

Shaffer told The Post that at least two other members of the Able Danger team plan on going public "as soon as they get basically some guarantees from their own organizations that they can talk without being retaliated against."

Both still work for the U.S. government, he said, adding that he also hopes the person who "ran the technology" for the program whom he identified only as a Ph.D. and a woman will go public.

It would be great for more people to go public about this, but what I'd really like is to see The Chart. How hard can it be to go through Able Danger's files, find a copy of the chart, and see if Mohamed Atta's name was really on it? Shaffer again:

Shaffer said he showed Able Danger files to other intelligence experts in the past and they agreed that "we really did have the goods on these guys before 9/11."

But he said that so far, the Pentagon has been unable to locate the files.

"I know where I left them and they're not there now," he said, adding it was at a Defense Intelligence Agency facility in northern Virginia.

Why is the Pentagon stonewalling on this? I personally doubt that Able Danger "had the goods" on Atta it was probably something more equivocal than that but it's inexcusable for the Pentagon to refuse to comment on this. Who are they protecting?

UPDATE: Over at Intel Dump, Jon Holdaway has some knowledgable speculation about what happened, who prevented Able Danger from coordinating with the FBI, and whether or not they were justified in doing so.

Kevin Drum 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FEINGOLD PROPOSES WITHDRAWAL....Fortuitously, Russ Feingold called today for a timed withdrawal from Iraq. This is from his press release:

U.S. Senator Russ Feingold today, at a local Listening Session in Marquette, Wisconsin, proposed a target timeframe for the completion of the military mission in Iraq and suggested December 31, 2006 as the target date for the completion of the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

...."Intense American diplomatic and political engagement in and support for Iraq will likely last long after the troops' mission is accomplished and they are withdrawn....But it's almost as if talking about completing the mission in Iraq has become 'taboo,'" said Feingold. "It's time for senators and Members of Congress, especially those from my own party, to be less timid while this Administration neglects urgent national security priorities in favor of staying a flawed policy course in Iraq."

Feingold opposed the war and has been a critic ever since, which means he's not part of the "stay the course" foreign policy establishment that I blogged about earlier this morning. We're still waiting for one of them to break ranks and propose a genuine withdrawal plan. Still, Feingold is a serious guy, he's a U.S. senator, and he might be testing the water for a presidential run. I have a feeling that the members of the Biden/Clinton/Albright/Brookings axis might be watching pretty closely to see how the country reacts to his proposal.

Kevin Drum 12:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ AND THE DEMOCRATS....Last week in The Nation, Ari Berman identified a growing disconnect in the Democratic party: at the same time that the anti-war left is gaining strength and demanding an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, the "strategic class" that dominates liberal foreign policy circles has remained resolutely hawkish. To be sure, they'll criticize George Bush's handling of the war, but they continue to insist that we need to maintain our military presence in Iraq anyway. The insurgency must be defeated.

Berman is right about this disconnect. Over a third of Americans now favor an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, a number that's been growing steadily, but none of the "serious" public faces of the party people like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and John Kerry are ready to join them. Not one. I can't think of a single exception.

This is shaping up to be a big problem. Right now, conventional wisdom suggests that Iraq is likely to be bad news for Republicans in the 2006 elections, but if liberals don't watch out, the disconnect that Berman identified could cause an even bigger crackup on the Democratic side. The dovish left is losing patience with establishment hawks, and if this continues we can be sure that Karl Rove will do his best to hammer this wedge straight through the heart of the Democratic party as the 2006 midterms begin to heat up.

This is about the last thing we need, and both sides would be well advised to do some serious thinking before this internecine warfare gets out of hand. For its part, the dovish left needs to content itself with merely trying to win support for its position, rather than also demanding ritual public humiliations from ego-driven politicians. It ain't gonna happen, and if it did it would do nothing but destroy their credibility and fracture the party anyway. So knock it off.

That part is easy. It's the hawkish establishment that's got the harder job, because they actually need to change their position. The problem is that it's pretty easy to understand why none of them are willing to embrace immediate withdrawal: not only do they genuinely not think it's a good idea, but they also know perfectly well that similar demands during the Vietnam war wrecked the Democratic party's reputation on national security issues for a generation. Was that unfair? Sure. But unfair or not, they aren't eager to see it happen again.

Of course, it's also true that calling for immediate withdrawal would be a singularly gutsy move, and that's not the hallmark of most politicians. What surprises me, though, is that none of them even has the guts to break ranks and advocate the course that's probably the most sensible anyway: a gradual timed withdrawal. There are at least three good reasons why a publicly announced timetable for withdrawal makes sense:

  • The presence of American troops is what's largely fueling the terrorism-driven Iraqi insurgency in the first place. Announcing in a credible way that we plan to leave really leave would at least partially draw its fangs.

  • As long as American troops are around, Iraqi leaders don't have enough incentive to make the hard choices needed to agree on a constitution and train troops to guard their own country. A no-nonsense announcement from the U.S. would force them to get moving.

  • The military can't keep up its current tempo in Iraq for much longer, and sometime in 2006 a drawdown is probably going to become necessary no matter what. If that's the case, it's better to do it on our own terms instead of waiting to be forced into it.

There are plenty of different ways you could propose a timed withdrawal. I made a fairly aggressive suggestion a couple of months ago, but there are lots of other possibilities too and none of them mean we need to abandon Iraq to the fates. Postwar aid has proven crucial to promoting stability and democracy in the aftermath of past conflicts, and we have every reason to be generous in providing reconstruction assistance of all kinds to the Iraqis after we leave. The important thing is to embrace the principle of withdrawal and Iraqi self-reliance, and do it without shilly shallying.

Our current policy in Iraq is a disaster that's virtually certain to fail and Clinton, Biden, and Kerry know it. So why continue supporting it? The fact is that a timed withdrawal is probably good policy and good politics. On a substantive level it's the policy most likely to work, and on a political level it's the policy most likely to differentiate a future candidate from both the Bush administration and the gray hordes of the Democratic foreign policy establishment. It's also popular. Although only a third of Americans favor immediate withdrawal, nearly two-thirds want to see us withdraw within the next year.

Still, advocating a timed withdrawal would take some guts. But being the first to seriously propose such a solution would also carry some rewards: the anti-war left would finally have someone to rally around and the Bush administration would finally have some serious competition. Is there anyone out there willing to do it?

Kevin Drum 1:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 17, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

WALL STREET JOURNAL WATCH....Brendan Nyhan today: "never trust the Wall Street Journal editorial page." That's good advice anytime, of course, but it turns out to be especially good advice today. Warning: many charts and much wonkery are involved. But Brendan is right and the Journal is wrong.

You're shocked, aren't you?

Kevin Drum 1:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ABLE DANGER AND THE LAWYERS....Why is it that Able Danger, the team that supposedly ID'd Mohamed Atta and his Brooklyn al-Qaeda cell a year before 9/11, was prevented from sharing this information with the FBI? Last night I noticed that the explanation offered by Tony Shaffer, an intelligence officer who worked with the program, has shifted subtly over the past week.

Here's the first New York Times piece about Able Danger:

The information was not shared, [Shaffer and Curt Weldon] said, apparently at least in part because Mr. Atta, and the others were in the United States on valid entry visas. Under American law, United States citizens and green-card holders may not be singled out in intelligence-collection operations by the military or intelligence agencies. That protection does not extend to visa holders, but Mr. Weldon and the former intelligence official said it might have reinforced a sense of discomfort common before Sept. 11 about sharing intelligence information with a law enforcement agency.

Here is Tuesday's New York Times article:

[Shaffer] said he learned later that lawyers associated with the Defense Department's Special Operations Command had canceled the F.B.I. meetings because they feared controversy if Able Danger was portrayed as a military operation that had violated the privacy of civilians who were legally in the United States.

Finally, here is Gil Spencer's story in the Delaware County Daily Times today:

Yet when he tried to share this information with the FBI, [Shaffer] said he was blocked from doing so by Department of Defense. Part of the reason was recent history and the lack of trust that existed between the federal agencies.

The Branch Davidian debacle in Waco that left 70 people dead was still in the memory banks of all those who had been involved in it, including the U.S. Army Delta Force that advised the siege team.

When it came to al-Qaida, Shaffer believes the mindset of the military was "if we pass the information on to the FBI and they do something with it and if something goes wrong (were) going to get the blame for it."

The explanation has gone from (a) legal concerns to (b) PR concerns rooted in legal issues to (c) PR concerns rooted in memories of the Waco debacle.

So what was the real reason? As it happens, Waco was mentioned in passing in the very first Able Danger story in Government Security News, but it never resurfaced after that. Until now, the story has been pretty consistently rooted in the actions of timid military lawyers.

I'm not sure what to make of this, but wanted to pass it along for the record. The reason it makes a difference is that it speaks to how solid the Able Danger material really was. Was it rock solid, but lawyers wouldn't let them share it with the FBI? Or was it vague and iffy material, and higher-ups didn't want it to blow up in their face if it turned out to be wrong? There's a big difference between the two.

Kevin Drum 12:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

STATE DEPARTMENT SMARTS....The New York Times reports today that a newly declassified document shows that the State Department had a sharp understanding of what it meant when Osama bin Laden moved from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996:

The State Department assessment, written July 18, 1996, after Mr. bin Laden had been expelled from Sudan and was thought to be relocating to Afghanistan, said Afghanistan would make an "ideal haven" for Mr. bin Laden to run his financial networks and attract support from radicalized Muslims. Moreover, his wealth, his personal plane and many passports "allow him considerable freedom to travel with little fear of being intercepted or tracked," and his public statements suggested an "emboldened" man capable of "increased terrorism," the assessment said.

....Michael F. Scheuer, who from 1996 to 1999 led the Central Intelligence Agency unit that tracked Mr. bin Laden, said the State Department documents reflected a keen awareness of the danger posed by Mr. bin Laden's relocation.

"The analytical side of the State Department had it exactly right that's genius analysis," he said in an interview when told of the declassified documents.

As near as I can tell, we could probably save a lot of money by shutting down about half our intelligence analysis apparatus and just letting the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research do the job. As Justin Rood reported in the Washington Monthly earlier this year, they have both the smallest budget and the best record of accuracy of any intelligence agency around. If we really want better results, maybe we ought to spend less time on gigantic bureaucratic reorganizations and more time figuring out INR's secret.

Kevin Drum 1:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE "CHOICE"....Jonathan Cohn writes in TNR on Tuesday about what Republicans mean when they talk about healthcare "choice." The Health Care Choice Act, sponsored by Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, would indeed increase your choice of private healthcare plans, but it does so by allowing insurers in one state to sell in any other state, thus obliterating state regulation of insurers. The result would be

a "race to the bottom," as even the legitimate insurers would flock to the states with the most lax regulations about solvency and marketing practices, much as credit card companies now flock to Delaware because of its minimal oversight and taxes. Even in those states determined to be vigilant, this move would render local rules on health insurance irrelevant.

Getting rid of those regulations, of course, is precisely what Shadegg and his allies have in mind, since they think needless state regulations are responsible for making health insurance so expensive in the first place. As proof, they cite some state rules that really do seem dubious or, at least, suspiciously likely to benefit certain well-connected groups of health care providers. But along with regulations guaranteeing coverage of podiatry or acupuncture are mandates to cover cancer screening, psychiatric treatment, and other services that most Americans rightly deem essential. Other regulations are designed to prohibit insurance companies from discriminating among customers based on age or propensity for illness.

Some choice. As Cohn points out, real choice would require a universal healthcare plan that genuinely allows everyone to choose the doctors and hospitals they like best. The problem, he concludes, is that "Those aren't the kind of choices that conservatives want to give Americans, since they happen to require expanding government. But they're the kind of choices Americans would appreciate most."

Kevin Drum 12:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 16, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

JEAN CHARLES DE MENEZES....Holy cats. Remember Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician wearing a heavy jacket who was mistakenly shot and killed after he jumped a turnstile and ran from police in a London tube station? It turns out that not only is none of that true, but he was even in custody when they shot him. From the Guardian:

It has now emerged that Mr de Menezes:

  • was never properly identified because a police officer was relieving himself at the very moment he was leaving his home;

  • was unaware he was being followed;

  • was not wearing a heavy padded jacket or belt as reports at the time suggested;

  • never ran from the police;

  • and did not jump the ticket barrier.

But the revelation that will prove most uncomfortable for Scotland Yard was that the 27-year-old electrician had already been restrained by a surveillance officer before being shot seven times in the head and once in the shoulder.

...."He immediately stood up and advanced towards me and the CO19 [firearms squad] officers ... I grabbed the male in the denim jacket by wrapping both my arms around his torso, pinning his arms to his side. I then pushed him back on to the seat where he had been previously sitting ... I then heard a gun shot very close to my left ear and was dragged away on to the floor of the carriage."

This is going to be "uncomfortable" for Scotland Yard? If this is all true, it ought to be considerably more than that.

Kevin Drum 11:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WHAT ABLE DANGER DISCOVERED....The New York Times interviewed Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer about Able Danger today, and here's his clearest statement yet about what the Able Danger team discovered regarding Mohamed Atta in 2000:

"We didn't that Atta's name was significant" at the time, he said, adding that "we just knew there were these linkages between him and these other individuals who were in this loose configuration" of people who appeared to be tied to an American-based cell of Al Qaeda.

That's still not very clear. "Linkages" between a "loose configuration" that was "tied to" an al-Qaeda cell. Still, Shaffer is clearly claiming that they had Atta's name and wanted to tell the FBI about it:

He said military lawyers forced members of the intelligence program to cancel three scheduled meetings with the F.B.I. at the last minute, which left the bureau without information that Colonel Shaffer said might have led to Mr. Atta and the other terrorists while the Sept. 11 plot was still being planned.

"I was at the point of near insubordination over the fact that this was something important, that this was something that should have been pursued," Colonel Shaffer said of his efforts to get the evidence from the intelligence program to the F.B.I. in 2000 and early 2001.

If he's telling the truth, then the Pentagon pretty clearly withheld relevant information from the 9/11 Commission.

Kevin Drum 7:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FDIO IDENTIFIED....Via Delco Times columnist Gil Spencer, Laura Rozen has identified the anonymous intelligence official who's behind the Able Danger story:

That official is DIA civilian and Army reservist Ltn. Col. Tony Shaffer. He served in a liaison capacity between Able Danger and the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in Tampa, Florida, and he flew into Afghanistan with special ops in a boots on the ground capacity....It's still a bit vague as to what exactly on Atta and the "Brooklyn cell" the Able Danger team came up with, but Shaffer did tell Spencer that the Able Danger team briefed then Special Ops commander, now Army Chief of Staff Pete Schoomaker on their findings.

Shaffer is on administrative leave from DIA over a "pretty trumped up clearance issue that may have to do with his role in trying to brief the 9/11 commission on Able Danger." That's according to Shaffer's attorney.

Despite numerous interviews of Shaffer by many different reporters, it's still unclear whether Able Danger genuinely identified Atta in a serious way prior to 9/11, and it's equally unclear whether the Pentagon later withheld information from the 9/11 Commission. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 6:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE ROBERTS FILE....Via Susie, Newsday reports on the latest document dump on John Roberts:

As a Reagan White House attorney in 1984, John G. Roberts criticized three Republican congresswomen for supporting the "radical" idea of "comparable worth" to create pay equality between men and women.

....The memo was among 5,393 pages of records released yesterday....The records showed heavy screening by the White House, with dozens of documents withheld on claimed exemptions for national security, privacy and internal decision-making.

Hmmm. Occam's razor suggests that the White House must consider the stuff they're holding back to be more embarrassing than a memo criticizing comparable worth as "radical." That's a scary thought.

Kevin Drum 3:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DEALING WITH IRAN....Patrick Clawson writes in TNR today that military action and economic sanctions are both lousy ways of trying to influence Iran to remain non-nuclear. Instead, he suggests isolation and containment:

The Serbian and South African precedents provide a useful book of tactics [for isolation]: banning travel by key political figures and their immediate family and forbidding Iranian participation in international sporting competition.

....Containment and deterrence measures should be paired with isolation. We could enhance cooperation with Arab states in the Persian Gulf, selling them more advanced weapons. Or we could enhance our military presence in the vicinity or change our "declaratory posture" with a trans-Atlantic statement promising to defend any state threatened by a nuclear Iran.

Such containment and deterrence steps would show Iran that it is starting an arms race that it will lose.

....Our options for influencing Iran are many. Indeed, we can even offer Iran some inducements, such as exchange of military observers at exercises or limitation of heavy weapons along the Iran-Iraq border. Those measures would be in our interest as well as theirs. There is no need to rush to consider military force or to go down the same flawed economic-sanctions route. Instead, the EU, the United States, and our Persian-Gulf allies should make it clear that they are willing to isolate and contain Iran much as the West did against the Soviet Union more than a half century ago.

I don't have the foreign policy chops to know if this idea is either feasible or likely to be effective. But it's worth having on the table, if only to demonstrate that our options in Iran aren't quite as binary as they're often made out to be.

POSTSCRIPT: In the Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria suggests that more aggressive diplomacy may be the answer:

The one man who has had extensive negotiations with the Iranians, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said to me a few months ago that Tehran is seeking a grand bargain: a comprehensive normalization of relations with the West in exchange for concessions on nuclear issues. It will never give up its right to a nuclear program, he argues, but it would allow such a program to be monitored to ensure that it doesn't morph into a weapons project. But the prize they seek, above all, is better relations with the United States. "That is their ultimate goal," he said.

There are lots of reasons to be suspicious of Iran. But the real question is: Do we want to try to stop it from going nuclear? If so, why not explore this path? Washington could authorize the European negotiators to make certain conditional offers, and see how Tehran responds. What's the worst that can happen? It doesn't work, the deal doesn't happen and Tehran resumes its nuclear activities. That's where we are today.

This sounds surprisingly similar to what a lot of people say about North Korea. But can it really be the case that all these regimes want is friendlier relations with the United States? Maybe, maybe not. But it wouldn't hurt to try and find out.

Kevin Drum 2:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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ABLE DANGER GOES PUBLIC?....Laura Rozen reports a rumor that "one of the former Able Danger officials" is going to be on Fox News tonight. There are multiple anonymous sources driving this story, and it's not clear which one this is, but this is still encouraging news for two reasons. First, anonymous sources are inherently less trustworthy than public sources, so talking openly adds credibility to the story (even if it is on Fox News). Second, it's harder for the Pentagon to continue stonewalling if the source is a real person with a real background. With any luck, this might force the military to let us know what really happened with the Able Danger program.

UPDATE: From NewsMax:

Rep. Curt Weldon said Monday that one or more members of an elite team of military intelligence officers who identified al-Qaida hijacker Mohamed Atta as a terrorist threat two years before he led the 9/11 attacks are prepared to go public.

"I can guarantee you that you will be able to have one on your show," Weldon told ABC Radio host Sean Hannity. "You might want to go with your TV show with this, because it will be a major story," the Pennsylvania Republican urged. "And you can interview him directly."

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By: Kevin Drum

RICE AND KERRY....I have, roughly speaking, been pleasantly surprised by Condi Rice's performance so far as Secretary of State especially considering her miserable performance in Bush's first term as NSC director. She's kept John Bolton away from Foggy Bottom, she's pushed foreign leaders in useful ways, she's been open to diplomatic initiatives, and she seems to have avoided missteps while retaining a moderating influence on her boss.

Brad Plumer isn't as enthusiastic, but he does make the useful point that when you look at what Rice has actually done, she seems to have adopted the Kerry/Edwards campaign platform almost wholesale:

Most of these steps were things that John Kerry was practically pleading with George W. Bush to take all during the 2004 campaign. Now fair enough, the election's over, and it's hard to get upset over the fact that the Bush administration has essentially adopted Kerry's foreign policy, after spending a year telling the electorate how weak-kneed it was, and how unsafe it would make America. I just wish the press would actually make note of this fact, so that, you know, they could call foul the next time a presidential candidate gets depicted as a flower-strewing wimp for pointing out that, hey, maybe doing nothing while Kim Jong Il develops nuclear weapons isn't the best idea after all. But that's probably hoping for too much.

Yeah, that's hoping for too much. But it would be nice if someone at least noticed.

Kevin Drum 1:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NEXT PRESIDENT....I haven't been paying close enough attention to this, since the next presidential election is still 39 months away, but there sure are a lot of people who appear to be actively running for the Democratic nomination already. Off the top of my head, here are the people who have either said they're considering a run or are routinely talked about by the press:

  • Joe Biden

  • Hillary Clinton

  • Bill Richardson

  • Evan Bayh

  • Wes Clark

  • John Kerry

  • John Edwards

Who have I missed? And is it my imagination, or is this awfully early for so many people to be in serious contention?

Kevin Drum 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 15, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

LAWSUIT FRENZY....In the academic world, "publication bias" is the widely acknowledged tendency to publish results that have strong findings while ignoring results that are negative or neutral. It's pretty easy to see the problem this creates: if a dozen researchers do a dozen studies, and two of them produce strong results while the others fail to produce anything interesting, only the first two get published. After all, why bother publishing something if the research didn't pan out? The result is that readers think something new has been discovered (two good studies confirm it!), while in reality ten out of twelve studies were null.

Guess what? Myron Levin reports in the LA Times today that newspapers have the same problem:

When a jury sticks it to a huge corporation, it's always big news. A crushing verdict of $4.9 billion against General Motors Corp. in Los Angeles drew massive media coverage, as did a $5-billion award in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case and a $144.8-billion thrashing of the tobacco industry in a Florida class action.

....[But] after the big headlines, critics say, the media often drop the ball, losing interest in what happens later. Published studies of news content and a Times examination of major recent cases show that when the immense verdicts were overturned or dramatically reduced, the news frequently was banished to the inside pages or simply not reported.

Coverage is far more likely if plaintiffs win than if they lose, and far more likely if awards are large than if they're small. This is no surprise, really, but Levin also reviewed some high profile cases and found that when big awards are reduced or overturned as they usually are newspapers that put the original story on the front page typically bury the followup.

So are lawsuits out of control? No. Over the past decade, the number of filings is down and the average award size is down. But thanks to publication bias, you'd never know it from reading your daily paper or watching the evening news.

Kevin Drum 11:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

JOHN AND JUDY....John Bolton paid a jailhouse visit to Judith Miller recently? I, um, don't quite know how to react to this news. Truth really is stranger than fiction, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 5:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

VALERIE PLAME UPDATE....The Carpetbagger summarizes the latest leaks about Karl Rove's initial interview with the FBI regarding Valerie Plame:

That discussion between Rove and federal investigators must have been quite a hoot. Where'd Rove learn about Plame? He said from a reporter. Which reporter? He doesn't know. When he did he talk to this reporter? He doesn't know. How did Rove communicate with this reporter? He doesn't know. For a guy who can remember voter information by the precinct in swing states, Karl Rove couldn't remember the slightest details when a reporter gave him classified information?

Murray Waas has the full story here and here.

Kevin Drum 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE CHART....Oh crikey. Eric Umansky has Curt Weldon's latest story about his famous chart. Here's my nickel summary:

Weldon's military buddies showed him the chart two weeks after 9/11. He was so shocked he didn't even bother to look at it, let alone make a copy. He just handed it over to Stephen Hadley in a daze.

Three years later he's working on his book. He calls his buddies, but they don't have another copy of the chart. So they recreate it for him, and oh-by-the-way did you know that Mohamed Atta was ID'd by name and picture on the original chart?

So Weldon's story is that (a) he's an idiot who in late September 2001 didn't notice the name and picture of a man whose name and picture had by then been plastered on TV nonstop for two weeks, (b) he gave away his only copy of the chart to Hadley, (c) the chart he's been showing off recently is a recreation from memory, and (d) he's been lying about this all along. And that's his alibi!

This is ridiculous. The Pentagon needs to step forward and tell us whether or not Able Danger ID'd Mohamed Atta in 2000. There's no excuse for not providing a definitive statement on this.

UPDATE: Laura Rozen has a good question about Weldon's latest story too.

Kevin Drum 3:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE ROMANCE NOVEL INDEX....Via Abu Aardvark, who has an unhealthy fascination for this kind of thing, Aqoul has compiled a chart using rigorous data mining techniques that shows a surprising surge in the popularity of sheikh-themed romance novels. The number of novels peaked in 2002, which makes a 9/11 connection seem obvious, but the upward trend started in 2000, which seems....odd.

But here's my theory: this is yet another way in which we can use open source data to predict major world events. Sort of like using Halloween masks to predict winners of presidential elections. Somebody should be tracking the themes of romance novels and using that data to forecast future world trouble spots. Maybe the Able Danger folks could look into this?

Kevin Drum 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DATA MINING....Here's a tidbit from the Norristown Times Herald about the nature of the Able Danger project. As usual, the source is a "former defense intelligence official familiar with the program":

In their efforts to locate terrorists, the operation's technology analysts used data mining and fusion techniques to search terabyte-sized data sets from open source material such as travel manifests, bank transactions, hotel records, credit applications and compared this material with classified information.

If this is accurate, it means Able Danger wasn't exactly the "open source" project we've been led to believe. At the very least, it used classified information along with stuff from commercial databases.

But is it accurate? Contrary to conventional wisdom, commercial databases like these are pretty tightly held, and getting complete, free wheeling access to them which is the kind you need for genuine data mining is pretty unlikely. What's more, it's especially unlikely for an experimental project with a small staff, minimal funding, and only a year or two of experience.

This whole thing still doesn't sound right to me. But I'm passing along the info for the record.

Kevin Drum 1:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ABLE DANGER GETS WEIRDER....The Able Danger story is getting weirder. Via TKS, Bergen Record columnist Mike Kelly adds some additional details today about Able Danger's tracking of Mohamed Atta:

In those horrific weeks after the [9/11] attacks, the official story line was that U.S. counterterror officials had no idea who Atta was before that murderous plot unfolded or where he was before 9/11. Only after the attacks could authorities track Atta's movements.

Now that story seems to be false.

Federal officials confirmed last week that a year before the attacks, a top-secret military intelligence team was following Atta and three suspected terrorists who turned out to be hijackers.

....The connect-the-dots tracking by the team was so good that it even knew Atta conducted meetings with the three future hijackers....Atta and al-Shehhi took a room at the Wayne Inn. They rented a Wayne mail drop, too, and even went to Willowbrook Mall. Al-Mihdar and al-Hazmi took rooms at a motel on Route 46 in South Hackensack.

I'm genuinely confused by all this. As near as I can tell, it seems clear that Curt Weldon has been embellishing his account of Able Danger, and it seems equally clear that the 9/11 Commission staff acted responsibly in not following it up. But that still leaves open the possibility that the Able Danger project really did uncover some interesting data about Mohamed Atta a year before 9/11, but that the military has withheld this information from both Weldon and the 9/11 Commission.

Given the level of detail in Kelly's column, the only other alternative is that the anonymous defense intelligence official who's driving this story is just making shit up. That's possible, I suppose, but hardly seems likely since his story can can be pretty easily checked by the Pentagon. What's more, there seems to be more than one person blowing the whistle on this. Are they all making stuff up? Or are they taking information that's been in the public record for years (as most of this stuff has) and simply pretending that Able Danger had it before 9/11?

Stay tuned. The Pentagon really ought to produce General Holland sometime soon and either confirm or decisively reject this whole account. There doesn't seem much excuse on their part for leaving it hanging.

Kevin Drum 11:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ UPDATE....The fact that Iraqi leaders are having trouble meeting their deadline to finish a draft constitution isn't surprising. In the past, they've missed pretty much every deadline they've had, but then eventually come to some sort of agreement a few days late. However, if the New York Times is correct, it looks like they might be genuinely deadlocked this time:

The negotiations were stalled on a number of issues, including the role of Islam in the state, the rights of women and the distribution of power between central and regional governments. Issues that had seemed to have been settled, like the sharing of oil revenues, came unraveled.

....The principal unresolved issue is whether to grant to the country's Shiite majority an autonomous region in the south. Shiite leaders are demanding that nine provinces in southern Iraq half of the provinces in the country be allowed to form a largely self-governing region akin to the Kurdish autonomous region in the north.

The leaders of Iraq's Sunni population staunchly oppose the Shiite demands, contending that if the Shiites and the Kurds were both granted wide powers of self-rule, there would be little left of the Iraqi state. The issue of Shiite autonomy is especially significant because the richest oil fields are situated in the extreme south of the country.

There are some things that can be fudged and some things that can't. Autonomy is probably one of the issues that can't.

Kevin Drum 1:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 14, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

WELDON'S CHART....Time magazine has more about Curt Weldon's famous "Able Danger" chart:

In a particularly dramatic scene in Weldons book, Countdown to Terror, the Pennsylvania Republican described personally handing to then-Deputy National Security Adviser Steve Hadley, just after Sept. 11, an Able Danger chart produced in 1999 identifying Atta. But Weldon told Time hes no longer certain Attas name was on that original document. The congressman says he handed Hadley his only copy. Still, last week he referred reporters to a recently reconstructed version of the chart in his office where, among dozens of names and photos of terrorists from around the world, there was a color mug shot of Mohammad Atta, circled in black marker.

So: Weldon is no longer certain Atta's name was on his original chart? Isn't that the kind of thing that would stick in your memory banks?

And he gave Hadley his only copy? Then how did he have a poster-size copy of the chart again without Atta's name a few months later?

What's more, if Atta's name wasn't on the chart in 2001, 2002, 2003, or 2004, why did the chart suddenly have a color mug shot of Atta in 2005? Hmmm?

It's pretty obvious that Weldon is, um, embellishing things a bit. Maybe more than a bit. Any chance of finding a decent Democrat to run for his seat in 2006?

Kevin Drum 3:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

YET MORE ABLE DANGER....As much as it pains me to give props to John Podhoretz and the gang at NRO, big props anyway for belatedly recognizing the likely truth about the recent "Able Danger" affair:

A day or two ago, I posted a note of caution about the Able Danger scandal, and that note of caution has now turned into a full-fledged symphony -- and some of us on the Right who have been making a big stink about this may have been had.

Yes indeed. Of course, we still have to wait to see if the other Cornerites take his advice, or if this kicks off yet another of the frequent (and entertaining!) JPod-related food fights over at The Corner.

But as long as we're on the subject of Able Danger, I've got another question. The claim that Able Danger specifically identified Mohamed Atta a year before 9/11 has consistently been sourced to a "former defense intelligence official" who has been working closely with Congressman Curt Weldon to push this story into the media. But there's something funny about the details here. Bear with me.

First, here's how the FDIO described what happened to Government Security News:

The intelligence officer recalled carrying documents to the offices of Able Danger, which was being run by the Special Operations Command, headquartered in Tampa, FL. The documents included a photo of Mohammed Atta supplied by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and described Attas relationship with Osama bin Laden.

I'm a little confused about why he was carrying these documents to the Able Danger offices, but set that aside. What are these documents, anyway? The New York Times elaborates:

The former defense intelligence official, who was interviewed twice this week, has repeatedly said that Mr. Atta and four others were identified on a chart presented to the Special Operations Command. The former official said the chart identified about 60 probable members of Al Qaeda.

Ah. The chart. Here's what Laura Rozen had to say about that a few days ago:

I was at a talk Weldon gave at the Heritage foundation back in 2002, where he was making the same claim and showing the same chart of the al Qaeda cells. (Start at around minute 24, minute 31 starts the claim, minute 33:33 is the chart). I even went up afterwards and asked if it would be possible to get a copy of the chart that accompanied his talk and that he's been showing recently, but it proved elusive.

So where's the chart? Why couldn't Laura get a copy of it back in 2002? And why hasn't Weldon shown that original chart to anyone since then?

As for Atta, is it really possible that Weldon put up a gigantic chart in front of a big crowd at a Heritage event for half an hour along with the passionate claim that our intelligence agencies were completely inept for not acting on this information but failed to mention that Mohamed Atta, the most famous terrorist of our time, was named on it? Furthermore, that no one at the event happened to notice Atta's name on the chart?

That's pretty unlikely. Obviously, Atta wasn't on the chart and Weldon didn't mention his name during his presentation. But why? Weldon's FDIO buddy says he distinctly remembers seeing Atta's name on the chart as early as 2000, so why didn't he mention this to Weldon back in 2002? Or 2003? Or 2004? Now, three years later, his memory has miraculously cleared up just in time to produce some dramatic political theater that helps Weldon's publicity campaign for his new book. That's pretty convenient timing, isn't it?

And one more thing. Why can't we get a comment on this from General Charles Holland, who took over Special Operations Command in October 2000? Weldon says that he called "my friend" Holland to arrange for his initial briefing about Able Danger in late 2001, so obviously he knows what that briefing was about. Why can't the Pentagon produce Holland to answer a few questions? He doesn't have to talk about anything classified. Just explain a bit about what Able Danger was, the nature of the information it produced, whether Atta's cell was specifically identified, and what kind of recommendations it made for action. That would help clear things up, wouldn't it?

UPDATE: More about the chart here.

Kevin Drum 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

REALITY vs. UNREALITY....The Bush administration, then and now:

Summer 2002, a senior Bush official to Ron Suskind: "[Establishment liberals] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

Summer 2005, a senior Bush official to Robin Wright and Ellen Knickmeyer: "What we expected to achieve [in Iraq] was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground. We are in a process of absorbing the factors of the situation we're in and shedding the unreality that dominated at the beginning."

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By: Kevin Drum

HIS DARK MATERIALS....I realize this is old news, but a few days ago I finished reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. For those who haven't read it, it's a best-selling, award winning kids/teens fantasy story that features a boy from our world who teams up with a girl from an alternate universe that's populated by witches, magical instruments, talking polar bears, and so forth. The boy and girl fight some enemies, have some adventures, and eventually do battle with (and defeat) the Authority, an evil being of great power.

Good clean fun, right? Not quite. To my surprise, it turned out that the Authority is God. Not just godlike, mind you, God. As in, the God of the Bible. In case you think I'm misinterpreting this, here's a passage from the third book:

"Tell me, then," said Will...."what is the Authority. Is he God?"

He sat down, and the two angels, their forms clearer in the moonlight than he had ever seen them before, sat with him.

Balthamos said quietly, "The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty those were all names he gave himself. He was never the creator....The first angels condensed out of Dust, and the Authority was the first of all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie."

And just in case you're not absolutely sure that God is really the bad guy in this story, here's one of many passages that makes clear exactly what Pullman thinks of him:

"There is a war coming, boy....We've had nothing but lies and propaganda and cruelty and deceit for all the thousands of years of human history.

...."There are two great powers," the man said, "and they've been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit."

This is pretty heavy stuff. I mean, it's a kids book, but the entire story is about the overriding evil of God and the Christian church, climaxed by a heroic war in which God is finally vanquished by the forces of good after 30,000 years of despotic rule.

Personally, I find this perfectly congenial. Your mileage may vary. But what I want to know is how this trilogy has managed to fly under Jerry Falwell's radar. Hell, the Christian right hates Harry Potter with a frenzy just because Harry's a wizard. They ought to be practically burning down bookstores over Pullman's books.

So what's the deal? Why haven't I heard anything about this? Does the Christian right not know about these books? That seems unlikely. Have they decided not to make a fuss about them for some reason? Did I just miss the fight back when the books were first published? What's up?

Kevin Drum 12:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 13, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

LINKFEST....Mark Kleiman is good today. He's got some encouraging news about the Plame investigation and a short but sweet anti-war rant. Read 'em both.

Marc Cooper has a really depressing story in LA Weekly about the state of farm worker labor organization. I knew it was in bad shape, but I didn't know things were this bad. Obviously better organizing efforts would help here, but as near as I can tell from Marc's piece, the only realistic way to get any fundamental improvement is to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi has an entertaining story based on following Bernie Sanders around and watching Republicans trash all his amendments. It's worth reading just for his nasty descriptions of all the players in these little mini-dramas.

Elsewhere, Shakespeare's Sister writes about women and videogames and Amanda Marcotte writes about women in movies. Both make similar points and both are worth reading.

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By: Kevin Drum

ROBERTS AND ABORTION....Brad Plumer has a good post about the real way in which John Roberts is most likely to curb abortion rights if he gets confirmed to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, it doesn't fit into a 30-second ad, so I'm not sure that this explanation is ever going to filter much further than policy wonks and blogosphere junkies. It's still interesting, though.

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By: Kevin Drum

CINDY SHEEHAN....Jeanne d'Arc on Cindy Sheehan:

All the sliming of Cindy Sheehan going on suggests that the right would like her to be more Claudette Colvin than Rosa Parks an unworthy messenger, someone the country can't hear because they can't sympathize with her. But in a country where support for the war is sliding down a cliff, that's obviously not going to happen.

But even if it did happen, it would be a thin hope to cling to. Just as there were people waiting behind Claudette Colvin, ennobled by her courage and ready to act, there are nearly two thousand families in this country who know too well what Cindy Sheehan is going through, and a lot of them want answers, too.

If you don't understand the reference to Claudette Colvin, read the whole post.

Kevin Drum 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

AD WARS....Dana Milbank writes today about the liberal response to NARAL's recent ad attacking John Roberts:

When conservatives complained about the ad which suggested that nominee John G. Roberts Jr. condoned violence against abortion clinics a number of prominent liberals joined in the criticism and elected Democrats ran for cover rather than defend the ad, which was dropped.

Amid similar criticism against another controversial ad, most Republicans brushed aside demands to repudiate Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that had taken aim at John F. Kerry's war record. Some Democrats said the difference revealed on their side an ambivalence about modern political combat that helps explain why their party is out of power.

....[Republican operative Greg Mueller, who advised the Swift boat group] said he never considered pulling the Swift boat ads when Democrats reacted with fury and independent arbiters declared the ads to be misleading. "There was never any question in our minds," he said.

I think there are a few things that need to be said about this.

First, it's true. Last year a well-financed group of Republicans created a slickly packaged campaign of fabricated stories designed to convince the country that John Kerry had been a coward under fire and virtually no senior Republicans repudiated it. I can't think of a presidential ad campaign in my lifetime including Willie Horton that was more loathsome, but it didn't even cause anyone to blink in the high councils of the Republican party.

Second, though, it's worth keeping in mind that Republicans play under different ground rules than Democrats, and there's just not much that Democrats can do about that in the short term. Nearly 40% of Americans call themselves conservatives, and that means that Republicans need to attract only a small number of center-right voters to win elections. They can run nasty campaigns designed to increase turnout among their base without worrying very much that they're losing so many moderate voters that it will turn the election.

Democrats don't have that luxury. Only 20% of the electorate call themselves liberals, which means that most Democratic campaigns especially national ones have to be aimed predominately at center and center-left voters who are turned off by the kind of fire and brimstone that works so well with the base. Thus, the kind of advertising that's a net positive for Republicans is usually a net negative for Democrats. That may be "unfair" in some kind of cosmic sense, but it's the way things are.

Third, the NARAL ad and the Swift Boat ads mostly demonstrate that conservatives are just better at this stuff than we are. The Swift Boat folks were able to manufacture uncertainty by focusing on an event that was genuinely hard to gather facts about. It was something that happened over 30 years ago, they methodically gathered up eyewitnesses willing to fabricate stories about it, and it took weeks for the media to do the research to figure out they were lying. By then it didn't matter.

The NARAL ad, conversely, focused on an event in which the facts were well established and every news organization in the country was able to figure out within hours that the charges against Roberts were dubious at best. Sure, partisans could have stuck with NARAL, but the court of public opinion matters, and the NARAL ad was so easy to fact check that there was never any chance of winning in that court. That's dumb politics.

So that's that. But there's one more thing. All this aside, I think that playing by a higher set of standards than Republicans is in the best interests of the Democratic party in any case. Liberalism simply doesn't flourish in the climate of fear and rage that works so well for conservatives, and I think that in the long run we do ourselves a disservice when we help create a climate like that.

Which is not to say that Democrats shouldn't be vigorous and unyielding in their views. They should. They just shouldn't be dumb about it. Public support for George Bush and the Republicans may be slipping, but it would be nice if that eventually turned into active support for Democrats, rather than merely an occasional grudging vote because the other guys are worse. So far it hasn't.

Kevin Drum 1:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE FUTURE OF IRAQ....Occasionally you'll see stuff like this in private emails that somehow become public, but rarely do reporters in Iraq write something as relentlessly depressing for print as today's Week in Review piece by Dexter Filkins of the New York Times:

In this third summer of war, the American project in Iraq has never seemed so wilted and sapped of life. It's not just the guerrillas, who are churning away at their relentless pace, attacking American forces about 65 times a day. It is most everything else, too.

Baghdad seems a city transported from the Middle Ages: a scattering of high-walled fortresses, each protected by a group of armed men. The area between the forts is a lawless no man's land, menaced by bandits and brigands.

....When the Americans smashed Saddam Hussein's regime two and half years ago, what lay revealed was a country with no agreement on the most basic questions of national identity. The Sunnis, a minority in charge here for five centuries, have not, for the most part, accepted that they will no longer control the country. The Shiites, the long-suppressed majority, want to set up a theocracy. The Kurds don't want to be part of Iraq at all. There is only so much that language can do to paper over such differences.

Dexter Filkins is not a happy camper.

Kevin Drum 12:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ABLE DANGER FOLLOWUP....I've been meaning to write up another post about Congressman Curt Weldon's "Able Danger" story (background here if you're not up to speed on this), but I've had a hard time getting my hands around the whole mess. The only thing that's sure is that the NRO crowd is going absolutely batshit over it. "This is clearly becoming the biggest story of the summer," thunders John Podhoretz. "Clinton, Berger, and the others didnt want to have to act against terrorist groups inside the United States, so the system didnt send them information," explains Michael Ledeen ominously. "Why has the public not been told...what was in the classified documents that Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger illegally pilfered from the archives?" demands Andy McCarthy.

This is a mountain of speculation given that actual facts on the ground seem to be almost nonexistent. We know that the Able Danger program existed, but that's about it. We don't really know anything about it aside from the vague description that it was a data mining operation of some kind; we don't know what it discovered about al-Qaeda; and we don't know whether it identified any of the 9/11 terrorists a year before the attacks, as Curt Weldon claims. There is, literally, about three sentences worth of information about the nature of Able Danger in the published reports so far, all of it from Weldon and his obviously disgruntled intelligence source.

So: is Able Danger the biggest story of the summer? Did the 9/11 Commission know that Able Danger had identified Mohamed Atta in 2000? Did they nonetheless refuse to mention this in their report?

Maybe. But the commission has now issued a statement based on notes taken in 2003 and 2004, and it sure doesn't sound like it. Laura Rozen has the entire statement, but here's an excerpt:

On October 21, 2003...met at Bagram Base, Afghanistan...referred to DOD program known as ABLE DANGER....Commission staff promptly prepared a memorandum for the record...does not record any mention of Mohamed Atta or any of the other future hijackers.

....In February 2004, DOD provided documents [about Able Danger]...None of the documents turned over to the Commission mention Mohamed Atta or any of the other future hijackers.

....In 2004, Congressman Curt Weldon...contacted the Commission....No mention was made in these conversations of a claim that Mohamed Atta or any of the other future hijackers had been identified by DOD employees before 9/11.

....In early July 2004...U.S. Navy officer employed at DOD...claiming that the project had linked Atta to an al Qaeda cell located in New York in the 1999-2000 time frame....The interviewee had no documentary evidence and said he had only seen the document briefly some years earlier....Weighing this with the information about Attas actual activities...the Commission staff concluded that the officers account was not sufficiently reliable to warrant revision of the report or further investigation.

The Able Danger program was classified, of course, so we may never know exactly what it was and what it found out especially since if the Pentagon was aware of Atta in 2000 it's not likely to want to admit it in any case. However, I'm going to stick with my original guess: it produced some general information about al-Qaeda, but nothing specifically about Atta or the other 9/11 hijackers. That's why no one ever mentioned Atta in the original reports. Later on, frustrated because their story wasn't getting enough attention, Weldon and his source embellished it to suggest that Able Danger had specifically uncovered actionable intelligence about an al-Qaeda cell in Brooklyn headed by Atta. The 9/11 Commission, which was days away from finishing its report, didn't believe this suddenly revised story and chose not to include it in its report.

If more details come out about this, I'll let you know. In the meantime, I suspect there's really nothing here except an intelligence officer disgruntled that his program was shut down and a credulous congressman who wanted to believe him. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 2:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 12, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

RED CITIES, BLUE CITIES....Via Natasha, It turns out that among cities with a population over 100,000, my hometown of Irvine is the 68th most conservative city in the country. This may sound like a bit of a drag, but I'm actually surprised to find that Irvine is that liberal. We only barely made it into the top third.

In any case, this is a considerable improvement for me. I grew up in Garden Grove, which turns out to be the 17th most conservative city in the country, so this means I've moved up 51 spots on the evolutionary ladder since my childhood.

For the record, this is all based on voting patterns as compiled by the Bay Area Center for Voting Research. They rank Detroit as America's most liberal city and Provo as its most conservative.

Kevin Drum 9:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE MERELY RICH vs. THE VERY RICH....I hereby award Jeffrey Birnbaum and Jonathan Weisman of the Washington Post the coveted "Lede of the Month" award for August:

The very rich and the merely rich are fighting over the fate of the estate tax.

So far, the very rich are winning.

Here's the state of play. Apparently the "merely rich" don't care so much about the rate of the estate tax, but want a big exemption. Their goal is to have a complete exemption for all estates under $10 million.

For the "very rich," though, that's chump change. Increasing the exemption to $10 million doesn't affect them very much, but a rate reduction from the current 47% would. So that's what they want.

The obvious Republican solution, of course, would be to raise the exemption and lower the rate. Or even repeal the estate tax completely. That way, none of the rich get left behind. Happy days!

So what's stopping them? Supposedly, they're stymied by the price tag of total repeal, which would cost $71 billion in 2015. By comparison, a "compromise" measure that favors the very rich by setting the exemption at a paltry $3.5 million while reducing the rate to a Wal-Mart friendly 15%, would cost a mere $53 billion. Apparently that extra $18 billion is a budget buster.

Yes, you heard that right. After enacting tax cuts for the rich during Bush's first term that were worth a few hundred billion dollars per year, we're supposed to believe that Republicans are now choking over an extra $18 billion. Sure they are. (The actual answer, in case anyone asks you what's really stopping them, is: "procedural obstacles that Democratic opponents are expected to erect.")

So are the rich really different from you and me? I guess that depends on whether you're talking about the merely rich or the very rich. Life is good at the top.

Kevin Drum 5:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

"OUTERCOURSE"....In August 2003, at the same time that Arnold Schwarzenegger was running for governor of California, he was also negotiating an $8 million deal with Flex and Muscle & Fitness magazines. Both magazines are owned by American Media Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer, and it turns out that AMI had more than just money to offer Arnold. During the same period that they were negotiating with Schwarzenegger, they were also negotiating a confidentiality contract with a woman who had previously claimed she had an intermittent affair with the soon-to-be governor:

American Media's contract with Gigi Goyette of Malibu is dated Aug. 8, 2003, two days after Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy on a late-night talk show. Under the agreement, Goyette must disclose to no one but American Media any information about her "interactions" with Schwarzenegger.

American Media never solicited further information from Goyette or her friend, Judy Mora, also of Malibu, both women said.

So after paying out $20,000 to Goyette and $1,000 to Mora in order to get exclusive rights to their story, the Enquirer never ran anything. That's a nicer perk than a key to the executive washroom, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 12:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NEW BLOG....Another gigantic academic group blog has taken wing today: POTUS, a production of 16 eminent presidential historians. Rick Shenkman, its founder and formerly sole proprietor, says POTUS is devoted to "politics, history and presidents. If you want to know what presidential historians across the country are thinking about this is the place to look."

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THE PARADOX OF MODERN WAR....I've been meaning to comment on this Matt Yglesias post for the past couple of days, but it looks like I'm not going to get around to it. It's still worth reading, though.

I've come to pretty much the same conclusion as Matt: the only way to win a war is for the other side to give up, and in a war of any size the only way to make that happen is by raining down utter destruction. Exceptions to this rule are pretty rare.

What this means is that the only way we can "win" in Iraq is via a war of annihilation, and this is something that thankfully Americans are no longer willing to engage in unless we ourselves are threatened with annihilation. As Matt says:

Here we face the central paradox of humanitarian warfare. Our new, more humane techniques are perfectly adequate to meeting purely military objectives. Destroy a tank. Destroy an airbase. Destroy a missile silo. A weapons lab. A communications center. They are not, however, nearly so good at achieving what one might call the humanitarian fringe benefits that accrued following the Allied victory [in World War II]. But to use mass slaughter of civilians as a technique of humanitarian warfare is absurd, repulsive, and unacceptable.

Which is not to say that modern, moral methods of warfare can never be used to humanitarian ends. High-tech airpower sufficed to secure Kurdistan a large measure of liberty from Baghdad for many years. Other analagous circumstances may well arise. But as a means of remaking a nation as opposed to securing the independence or security of an already separate one the methods we may use don't seem up to the job. So much the worse for the methods, says [Max] Boot, but that's insane. That it is incumbent upon us to find other, better ways of helping those who could use help than dropping bombs is the only reasonable conclusion.

This is indeed the central paradox of the war in Iraq. It does not seem to be one that is easily solved.

Kevin Drum 1:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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PEAK OIL WATCH....Despite all the blogging I've done about peak oil, I've been a little surprised at the continuing steady rise of oil prices over the past few months. After all, with only a couple of exceptions, even the most pessimistic peak oil folks don't think world oil production is going to peak for several more years, which means there's not much reason for short term price spikes. So what's the explanation?

It's possible that it's due to nothing more than normal short term market fluctuations. However, the chart on the right suggests the answer is more fundamental: demand is now exceeding supply. And while this doesn't necessarily mean that production has peaked, it may mean that we've hit the supply/demand crunch I wrote about a couple of months ago:

Current world demand for oil is about 84 million barrels per day, and current world production capacity is about....84 million barrels per day. As Amy Myers Jaffe points out, OPEC's spare capacity and thus the world's has dropped nearly to zero in the past few years. Everyone is pumping full out.

This is why prices are increasing now even though there's been no oil shock. It's not because of a sudden disruption, it's because demand is now bumping up against supply. What's more, this is a permanent condition: new capacity takes years to develop, so even in the best case supply will only barely keep up with future growth in demand. There's not much margin for error.

Oil production will almost certainly surpass 84 million barrels per day as new fields come online in the future, but demand is going to increase right along with it. Thus, unless there's a global economic shock of some kind, it's likely that demand is now permanently equal to supply. There's no spare capacity left, and there never will be again.

This mean that we're now living in a different world. I'm not sure what all the ramifications of this are, but one thing is pretty certain: the next oil shock and there will be one eventually is going to be worse than any previous shock. Fasten your seat belts.

Kevin Drum 1:03 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 11, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

CINDY BLOGGING....I just clicked over to the Huffington Post to see what the glitterati are blogging about, and the answer is: Cindy Sheehan 24/7. There are twenty posts on the front page of the blog at the moment, and of those, seventeen are about Cindy Sheehan. I feel like I'm drowning in Cindy Sheehan adulation.

On the bright side, Deepak Chopra hasn't written a Cindy Sheehan post today, so we still have his take on the situation to look forward to.

BY THE WAY: Speaking of the HuffPo, is it OK that I think Greg Gutfeld is pretty funny even though I'm a liberal? Just checking.

Kevin Drum 9:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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STATE DEPARTMENT MEMO UPDATE....Walter Pincus is too subtle for me, but I think Armando at Daily Kos may have correctly deconstructed the point of Pincus's story today about who sent Joe Wilson to Niger. Here's the nickel version:

  1. In July 2003, Karl Rove and Scooter Libby told reporters that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, had been responsible for sending him on his fact finding trip to Niger the previous year.

  2. However, virtually every source says that's not true. The CIA maintains that senior officials in the counterproliferation division chose Wilson, and that Plame's only role was to write a memo about his credentials that they asked her to write.

  3. In fact, as of July 2003, there was only one source that said the trip was Plame's idea: the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which had written a memo in June about the affair.

  4. Therefore, that State Department memo must have been Rove and Libby's source of information about Plame and if that's the case, it's bad news for the White House since the memo clearly marked the information about Plame as classified. (Further tidbit: Is it possible that this memo was what Rove was talking about when he told Time's Matt Cooper that "material was going to be declassified in the coming days that would cast doubt on Wilson's mission"?)

Do I believe this theory? Maybe. It certainly sounds plausible. Do I believe this was Pincus's point in writing his article? Possibly. In any case, click the links and decide for yourself. Background on the State Department memo is here, here, and here.

Kevin Drum 4:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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STADIUM SEATING....The LA Times has a story today about the tweaking and market testing of The 40 Year-Old Virgin, which includes this unexpected observation from director Judd Apatow:

Thanks to the small tweaks, the movie was playing better than ever, even in a stadium-seating multiplex, which Apatow is convinced hurts comedies because he believes laughter doesn't easily reverberate and spread in a steeply pitched auditorium.

Tough. Apatow is going to have pry my local stadium seating theater from my cold dead hands. It's the best invention in moviegoing since popcorn.

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INTELLIGENT DESIGN BACKGROUNDER....The driving force behind the "Intelligent Design" movement is the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. In the American Prospect today, Chris Mooney has a terrific piece outlining the history of both ID and the role of the Discovery Institute in popularizing it. Here he explains the religious background of ID:

The most eloquent documentation of IDs religious inspiration comes in the form of a Discovery Institute strategic memo that made its way onto the Web in 1999: the Wedge Document. A broad attack on scientific materialism, the paper asserts that modern science has had devastating cultural consequences, such as the denial of objective moral standards and the undermining of religious belief. In contrast, the document states that ID promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions. In order to achieve this objective, the ID movement will function as a wedge that will split the trunk [of scientific materialism]...at its weakest points.

The Wedge Document puts ID proponents in an uncomfortable position. Discovery Institute representatives balk at being judged on religious grounds and accuse those who probe their motivations of engaging in ad hominem attacks. Yet given the express language of the Wedge Document, its hard to see why we shouldnt take them at their own word. Discoverys ultimate agenda the Wedge clearly has far more to do with the renewal of religiously based culture by the overthrow of key tenets of modern science than with the disinterested pursuit of knowledge.

Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: Jerry Coyne has an immensely long but good! piece in The New Republic today that outlines everything: the history of creationism, the history of ID, the evidence for evolution, and the obvious problems with ID as a scientific theory:

The final blow to the claim that intelligent design is scientific is its proponents' admission that we cannot understand the designer's goals or methods. Behe owns up to this in Darwin's Black Box: "Features that strike us as odd in a design might have been placed there by the designer for a reason for artistic reasons, to show off, for some as-yet undetectable practical purpose, or for some unguessable reason or they might not."

....Well, if we admit that the designer had a number of means and motives, which can be self-contradictory, arbitrary, improvisatory, and "unguessable," then we are left with a theory that cannot be rejected. Every conceivable observation of nature, including those that support evolution, becomes compatible with ID, for the ways of the designer are unfathomable. And a theory that cannot be rejected is not a scientific theory. If IDers want to have a genuinely scientific theory, let them propose a model that can be rigorously tested.

Read this one too.

Kevin Drum 1:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BUSH INDICTED!!!....Via Teresa Nielsen Hayden, I see that the top search term on Technorati at the moment is "Bush indictment." Oh happy day!

Actually it's even better than that. Check this out from Arctic Beacon:

[Based on testimony from Colin Powell], sources close to the federal grade jury probe also allegedly told Heneghen a host of administration figures besides Bush were also indicted, including Vice-President Richard Cheney, Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Cheney Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, imprisoned New York Times reporter Judith Miller and former Senior Cheney advisor Mary Matalin.

How cool is that? But wait! There's more!

Arctic Beacon also reports on Sherman Skolnick, "a long time Chicago judge buster with a 40 year history of investigating judicial criminality," who says that Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens was in Chicago this weekend trying to "prevent a national catastrophe" by finding a way quash the indictments. Stout man.

But that's not all. Hang on to your hats, because Skolnick has more. Much more!

Did you know that the the media empire gets their pulp and other newsprint from Canadian Jesuit facilities, by way of a perpetual contract originally signed by the King of England in the 19th Century? I'll bet you didn't. What's more and yes, this is somehow related a bipartisan committee of 40 Democrats and 30 Republicans is preparing a resolution of impeachment against George Bush! As well they should, since apparently the Bush family and the Queen of England share a bank account containing $100 billion (arranged via Alan Greenspan's "secret code.") And guess who else is a part owner of this bank account? Saddam Hussein!!!

There's also some stuff about Mossad and the King of Spain agreeing to turn over parts of Mexico to the United States. No, wait. It's the other way around. We're giving southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas to Mexico. Bummer.

Skolnick's other site links to a report that General Kevin Byrnes, who was allegedly fired recently for having an extramarital affair, was actually plotting a coup against Bush and was captured by the counter-coup forces. However, other coup leaders are continuing their preparations. So expect trouble.

That's today's news. Admit it: wasn't this much more entertaining than the actual news?

Kevin Drum 12:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WITHDRAWAL UPDATE....The military seems to be having some trouble fine tuning its message about withdrawing troops from Iraq. The latest version, from an anonymous "top U.S. military official," urges people not to get their hopes up:

The official stressed that it was "important to calibrate expectations post-elections. I've been saying to folks: You're still going to have an insurgency, you're still going to have a dilapidated infrastructure, you're still going to have decades of developmental problems both on the economic and the political side."

....Even if a new government is elected on time in December, "the earliest they're going to be capable of running a counterinsurgency campaign is...next summer," the official said.

Consider your expectations suitably calibrated.

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By: Kevin Drum

ABLE DANGER....Here's a funny thing. Last Friday I got an email from a PR guy for Government Security News telling me about a story they were preparing to publish later that day (link here). The story was about a U.S. Army military intelligence program called "Able Danger" that had supposedly used data mining techniques to identify the al-Qaeda cell run by Mohamed Atta a year before 9/11. Unfortunately, as the story went, nothing was done about it because Defense Department lawyers prevented the Able Danger team from telling the FBI about the Atta cell.

For better or worse, I scanned the email briefly, saw that the primary source of the story was Pennsylvania congressman Curt Weldon, and decided to pass on it. On Tuesday, though, Douglas Jehl of the New York Times ran a piece about Weldon's accusations (here) and then followed it up on Wednesday with another piece (here) that quoted a number of people wondering why this information was only being made public now and why the 9/11 commission hadn't investigated it last year. That's an especially good question, Laura Rozen says (here), because Weldon has been beating the Able Danger drum since at least 2002, when she heard him give a talk about it at the Heritage Foundation.

So who's the culprit? Why didn't the 9/11 Commission investigate this? Weldon's source for his story is a "former defense intelligence officer" who worked closely with the Able Danger program, and he told GSN exactly where he thought the fault lied:

I personally talked with [Philip] Zelikow [executive director of the 9/11 Commission] about this, recalled the intelligence officer. For whatever bizarre reasons, he didnt pass on the information.

The State Department, where Zelikow now works as a counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said he was traveling and unavailable for comment.

The GSN story actually has quite a bit more detail than either of Jehl's pieces, so read the whole thing if you're interested in learning more. So far, nobody has gotten Zelikow to comment on this, but Jehl reports today that the reason the 9/11 Commission staff didn't follow up on the Able Danger story was because they didn't believe it:

Al Felzenberg, who served as the commission's chief spokesman, said earlier this week that staff members who were briefed about Able Danger at a first meeting, in October 2003, did not remember hearing anything about Mr. Atta or an American terrorist cell.

.... Mr. Felzenberg said the commission's staff remained convinced that the information provided by the military officer [during a second briefing in July 2004 just a few days before the final commission report went to press] was inaccurate in a significant way.

....Mr. Felzenberg said staff investigators had become wary of the officer because he argued that Able Danger had identified Mr. Atta, an Egyptian, as having been in the United States in late 1999 or early 2000. The investigators knew this was impossible, Mr. Felzenberg said, since travel records confirmed that he had not entered the United States until June 2000.

For myself, I remain agnostic. Weldon is not exactly a reliable source, he has a huge axe to grind here (data mining is a longtime hobby horse of his), and Zelikow seems to be pretty well regarded in DC circles as a straight shooter. If he and his staff decided not to pursue the Able Danger lead, it sounds like they may have had good reason.

Bottom line: This is an intriguing story, but my guess is that Weldon and his source may be considerably embroidering the scope and reliability of what the Able Danger team actually uncovered in 2000 as people are often wont to do after the fact. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 2:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 10, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

GIANT PEAT BOG MELTING....The Guardian reports that global warming is causing a gigantic Siberian peat bog to thaw:

The area, which covers the entire sub-Arctic region of western Siberia, is the world's largest frozen peat bog and scientists fear that as it thaws, it will release billions of tonnes of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere.

It is a scenario climate scientists have feared since first identifying "tipping points" delicate thresholds where a slight rise in the Earth's temperature can cause a dramatic change in the environment that itself triggers a far greater increase in global temperatures.

....Calculations by Dr [Stephen] Sitch and his colleagues show that even if methane seeped from the permafrost over the next 100 years, it would add around 700m tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year....It would effectively double atmospheric levels of the gas, leading to a 10% to 25% increase in global warming, he said.

The Guardian has a bit of tendency to overhype stuff like this, so I'm curious to see how this gets reported elsewhere. Still, it sure isn't good news.

Kevin Drum 9:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NARAL AND ROBERTS....A regular correspondent writes today with some advice:

If you'd like to get a jump in viewings from right-wing readers, we'd all really like to see some mainstream leftwing blog denounce the NARAL ad.

I have my doubts about that, but still, this email, along with a barrage of other emails and dozens of blog posts, finally aroused me from my August torpor. So I went and looked at the ad that's causing all the fuss.

The text is on the right, and when you cut through the thousands of words of chaff written about it, there appear to be two main complaints. First, that the ad doesn't make clear that Roberts' brief was filed seven years before the Birmingham bombing, and second, that it's outrageous to say that Roberts was "supporting violent fringe groups and a convicted clinic bomber."

Well, is that outrageous? Sure. Roberts was defending a legal principle, and the beneficiaries of legal principles are frequently pretty odious characters. Defending the principle doesn't mean you're defending a particular person or group, a distinction the ACLU makes all the time.

However, on the overall scale of outrageousness, I have to say that this ad ranks pretty low compared to conservative benchmarks like Willie Horton and the Swift Boat lunatics. In fact, here's what I think is weird: NARAL could have addressed both these complaints and made the ad better in the process.

Take the timeline issue first. Wouldn't it actually be more effective to put this front and center so that the 1998 bombing appears to be the inevitable result of Roberts' winning 1991 argument to the Supreme Court? Sure it would.

As for "supporting violent fringe groups," why say it that way in the first place? Why not take the high road and acknowledge that Roberts was defending an abstract principle, but then condemn the ivory tower ideology that they believe produced such appalling real world results?

So even though no one asked me, here's my rewrite of the NARAL ad:

Announcer: In 1991, Supreme Court nominee John Roberts filed court briefs arguing that federal law couldn't be used to curb violent protesters outside women's health clinics.

(On screen: Early 90s footage of violent crowds surrounding a woman trying to get to a clinic door.)

Announcer: The protests continued, and seven years later, a bomb destroyed a clinic in Birmingham, Alabama.

(On screen: Footage of bombed clinic.)

Emily Lyons: When a bomb ripped through my clinic, I almost lost my life.

Announcer: John Roberts was just doing his job: he was defending conservative ideology for the first Bush administration. But conservative ideology has real world consequences.

Emily Lyons: I'm determined to stop this violence so I'm speaking out.

Announcer: Call your Senators. Tell them to oppose John Roberts. America can't afford a Justice whose ideology leads him to excuse violence against other Americans.

It's more accurate this way and it acknowledges Roberts' actual role explicitly, but it's every bit as inflammatory as the original version. Hell, maybe more inflammatory.

Of course, what's ironic is that ads like this are only necessary because of the peculiar convention we've adopted that says court nominees can't be asked any genuine questions about their judicial views. So we have to guess based on scraps of writing from their past.

But really, what's wrong with simply asking Roberts, "What do you think of the majority's reasoning in Roe v. Wade? Do you think it's sound?" That's not prejudging a future case, it's asking him his scholarly opinion of a past argument. If he says that he thinks the reasoning is suspect, then abortion rights groups have every right to oppose him because they think his judgment is wrong.

Instead we get a kabuki dance. What a waste.

Kevin Drum 6:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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URGENTLY REVIEWING ROBERTS....Jo Becker's front page story in the Washington Post about John Roberts is bizarre:

Thrown on the defensive by recent revelations about Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr.'s legal work, White House aides are delaying the release of tens of thousands of documents from the Reagan administration to give themselves time to find any new surprises before they are turned into political ammunition by Democrats.

....Three weeks later, these officials say they recognize that Roberts's record is going to be central to Senate confirmation hearings scheduled to begin Sept. 6, and lawyers and political aides are urgently reviewing more than 50,000 pages at the same time denying requests from Democrats for an immediate release.

While the White House plays catch-up in studying Roberts's past, it is facing complaints from some of its conservative supporters about what they feel has been a stumbling campaign for the nominee.

Sean Rushton, director of the conservative Committee for Justice, said in the days after the nomination "there was a drop-off of message and focus."

This doesn't even make sense. The White House knew liberals would be gearing up to oppose anyone they nominated. They knew NARAL would go after any candidate who wasn't obviously willing to uphold Roe v. Wade. They knew Roberts was a conservative that's why they nominated him in the first place.

So why are they scrambling? Were they really so excited at finding a "stealth" candidate one who was extremely conservative but didn't have much of a track record that they didn't bother to map out a confirmation strategy even though they've been expecting a Supreme Court vacancy to open up for years?

Something doesn't add up here. Frankly, Roberts looks like a shoo-in to me, and if Bush has any trouble at all getting him confirmed it means there's some serious disarray in the White House. Maybe Karl Rove has other things on his mind these days?

Kevin Drum 1:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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RELIGION AND SCIENCE....David, I love you, man, but this is about the worst reason I've ever heard for teaching both evolution and Intelligent Design in public schools:

But here's the real silver lining for all of those liberals who are concerned about Christian fundamentalism invading our schools in the guise of Intelligent Design. If conservatives are serious about "teaching the controversy", then perhaps they will also be willing to teach the controversy when it comes to liberal add-ons to the public school curriculum, such as birth control and homosexuality.

Um, yeah, sure they will. But I hope you'll forgive me if I don't hold my breath waiting for this happy day.

Look, this controversy isn't really about ID vs. evolution. It's about who gets to decide what's science and what isn't and in that sense the radical Christian right understands the stakes better than much of the evolution crowd. After all, once you concede that the revealed wisdom of a millennia-old text is a legitimate substitute for empirically based science, creationism is only the start. The book of Genesis expresses opinions on much more than simply the creation of Adam and Eve.

Science classes should teach science. Sunday schools should teach religion. There's really no compromise position here.

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STEM CELL FEVER....Why is it that blue states are so much richer and more culturally vibrant than red states? Here's why:

The moral debate over embryonic stem cells stretches far beyond Capitol Hill to state capitals and research parks across the country, where a fierce competition is underway from Maryland to California for cutting-edge research and the profits that could follow.

...."The blue states have been rushing to embrace opportunities in stem cell research," said Patrick M. Kelly, vice president of state government relations at the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization. "California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, now Illinois. That has not been a phenomenon that has swept through the red states."

Technological development is at the core of increasing productivity, and everyone benefits from it regardless of where the basic research is done. Still, the places that do the research get the lion's share of the benefit, and if you were a scientist, where would you rather be? UCLA or Stanford on the one hand, or someplace where the locals try to ban the teaching of evolution and think that biotech laboratories are symbols of moral degeneracy? Seems like an easy choice.

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August 9, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

EMBRYOS....Mort Kondracke, writing today about abortion and contraception, says that

there's ground for suspicion that some religious conservatives are as much about punishing illicit sexual activity as they are about saving "life."

Indeed there is. But Ramesh Ponnuru says Kondracke is nuts:

It's the bit about sex where he makes no sense at all. If punishing illicit sexual activity were the point, why would these religious conservatives care about embryonic stem-cell research at all? We're not talking about embryos created the old-fashioned way.

Exactly. And guess what? It turns out that embryos created in vitro and then discarded as most of them are cause no heartburn for religious conservatives. But if those embryos are genuine human lives, shouldn't the Christian right be picketing outside IVF clinics the same way they picket outside abortion clinics?

In fact, even stem cells themselves help make Mondracke's case. Religious conservatives are universally opposed to abortion, but stem cells are divisive even within the pro-life ranks, a division that's only growing with time. This is why George Bush had to fudge his original stem cell decision in 2001 and it's why Bill Frist decided to come out in favor of expanded stem cell research last week. If the embryo debate were really only about "life," opposition to stem cells among religious conservatives would be as monolithic as opposition to abortion.

So yes: illicit sexual activity is at the core of the abortion debate, and it's at the core of a lot of other conservative hot buttons too. More on that here.

Kevin Drum 9:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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20/20 BLOGGING VISION....I'm back. My distance vision is a notch worse than last time, but my reading (and blogging) vision continues its age-defying perfection. Which, really, is a good thing since I spend a lot more time using my near vision than my distance vision.

Plus, it turns out that science has marched on in the past few years. My new lenses, I'm told, will come with an antireflective coating so miraculous that it practically repels dirt and smudges atomically. We'll see.

Kevin Drum 8:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD....Hum de hum. I'm bored today. What to talk about? I know let's try to figure out what the hell is wrong with Democrats these days. How come people won't vote for us? Everyone seems to be talking about that today.

I don't actually know the answer, but I think I've collected the leading candidates:

  1. Too socially liberal. Need to move to the center.

  2. Too wishy washy. Need to be loud and proud liberals.

  3. Too tin-eared. We're terrific on the issues, but we need to frame them properly.

  4. Too wimpy. Need to convince Americans we can kick Osama's butt.

  5. Too wonkish. People don't want laundry lists, they want character.

  6. Too gutless. Need to get down in the gutter with Karl Rove and rip his lungs out.

  7. Too shortsighted. Need to create liberal versions of the Heritage Foundation to help us build long-term vision.

  8. Too tired. Need to break loose from the past and offer fresh, original ideas.

  9. Too splintered. Need to quit pandering to the interest groups that actually vote for us.

  10. None of the above. It's the media's fault.

Vote for your favorite in comments! I'll be back after my semi-decennial visit to the optometrist.

Kevin Drum 5:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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EVOLUTION....Chris Mooney wonders why USA Today wastes its newsprint providing equal time for opponents of evolution:

Just because your editorial page takes a stance in favor of evolution, that doesn't mean you have to publish nonsense as a rejoinder. But USA Today just did that today with this op-ed, from a Utah Republican (not a scientist), which has the gall to claim: "There is zero scientific fossil evidence that demonstrates organic evolutionary linkage between primates and man." Absolutely outrageous.

When USA Today runs an article on September 26th about the 100th anniversary of the Theory of Relativity, as I hope they do, will they feel obligated to print a rebuttal from one of the many crackpots on the web who say that Einstein was wrong? I suspect not. Why then, do they feel the same need with evolution, which, if anything, rests on a more solid evidentiary foundation than relativity?

It's a mystery. Perhaps in the future, instead of reporting on actual science, USA Today will simply take a poll and publish one of its cute graphics telling us what the majority of the citizenry believes. Then we can teach that in our public schools instead of just parroting the politically correct line from the liberal elites in our scientific establishment. Happy days!

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BASES IN IRAQ....Former Condi Rice friend Larry Diamond states the obvious today:

Its now pretty clear that the ambition to establish long-term American military bases in Iraq, in order to secure the Persian Gulf region, contain Iranian expansion, and enable us to draw down or withdraw altogether our forces in Saudi Arabia, was an important motivation for going to war.

....What concerns me as much as anything is the listless state of our own democracy. Why have the Congress and the news media not effectively challenged the Administration on this issue? Why has the White House press corps not asked President Bush the obvious and urgent question, Mr. President, do we seek long-term military bases in Iraq? If so, do you believe this strategic goal is worth the loss of more American lives in Iraq? If not, why dont you declare that we will not do so, so as to remove one of the most powerful political mobilizing grounds for the insurgency? Why have the Congress and the media not challenged Secretary Rumsfeld: Mr. Secretary, are we building permanent military bases in Iraq? What are our intentions there?

So far, the press has allowed Bush and Rumsfeld to get away with mealy-mouthed evasions that there are "no current plans" for permanent bases and that of course! this decision is up to a future democratically-elected Iraqi government. At the same time, billions of dollars have been spent in both Afghanistan and Iraq on bases that look pretty damn permanent to anyone who takes even a casual look at them.

Why does the press let them get away with this obvious sophistry? Beats me. You'd think they'd have learned their lesson by now.

Kevin Drum 12:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 8, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

IS OUR KIDS LAZY?....Alexandra Starr writes in Slate that perhaps low high school test scores in the United States are due to lack of motivation, not lack of smarts:

Look at Texas: In 2004, results counted toward graduation for the first time, and pass rates on both the math and English portions of the test leapt almost 20 points. According to Julie Jary, who oversees student assessment for the state, no substantive alterations were made to the test. What changed was students' motivation: When their diplomas were hanging in the balance, they managed to give more correct answers.

The pass rates are here, and sure enough, between 2003 and 2004 the pass rate for English went from 61% to 83% and for mathematics from 44% to 67% (using the "Panel Recommended" standard).

Unfortunately, in the entire article this is the only piece of evidence Starr marshals in favor of the motivation thesis and frankly, the very size of the Texas improvement makes me suspicious that there's more going on there than meets the eye.

So: interesting idea. Plausible, too, even if Starr admits that kids in Japan and Britain do better than us on international tests even though scores have no impact on graduation there either. Still, it would be nice to have more than one lonely piece of data in hand before grinding out a thousand words on the topic. Color me skeptical.

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By: Kevin Drum

TNR LINKFEST....Why is The New Republic so frustrating? Because they run crank nonsense like this week's "New New Deal" article with tiresome regularity, but at the same time they also run terrific pieces like Peter Scoblic's cover story from last week about the Bush administration's congenital inability to come to grips with nuclear terrorism; Franklin Foer's fresh look at how Kenneth Tomlinson has turned the Voice of America and al-Hurra into bastions of Republican political correctness; and Ryan Lizza's rundown of just who all those mysterious "sources close to the White House" really are.

All three of these pieces are well worth a few minutes of your time. You'll just have to do your best to avert your gaze from this week's cover story crackpotism while you're there.

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By: Kevin Drum

JUCHE....With Nazi references now in ill repute thanks to Dick Durbin's inflammatory suggestion that we should aspire to treat prisoners better than Hitler did, Ronald Brownstein turns to North Korea today for his political metaphors:

The essence of the modern Republican governing strategy is self-reliance. The goal is to resolve all issues in a manner that solidifies their political coalition. The means is to pass legislation primarily by unifying Republicans, thus shrinking opportunities for Democrats to exert influence. This approach represents the political equivalent to what the North Korean government calls Juche: a strategy of maximizing independence by minimizing dependence on outside forces.

Excellent. They aren't going to like that analogy, are they?

What's curious about Brownstein's column is that he dances around but never quite gets to the Republican strategy that's really the best evidence for his Juche metaphor: the fact that the Republican leadership often tries to actively minimize the number of Democratic votes their bills get. It's more than simply not caring about Democratic votes. If a bill is in danger of getting bipartisan support, they'll often lard it up with superfluous junk random union bashing is a favorite specifically designed to force Democrats to vote against it. Why? Because it promotes Republican solidarity, solidifies Democrats' reputation as obstructionists, keeps votes close so that their supporters remain in a constant checkbook-ready state of panic, and convinces business interests that Democrats hate them. Cases in point include the Homeland Security bill, the Medicare bill, and CAFTA.

It's a pretty good strategy, actually. But how much longer can it last? I'll take bets in comments.

Kevin Drum 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE MYSTERIOUS BLOGOSPHERE....An odd but probably accurate observation from Joe at AmericaBlog:

Believe it or not, blogs are a mysterious entity here in DC. John [Aravosis] and I were talking tonight about [how] weird that is. I can't tell you how many people in this town have said something like "I don't get the blogs" or "I have never looked at blogs" or "How do you get into the blogs." I think part of it is that people in DC are so used to thinking that there are barriers to participating in politics. Or they can't grasp that so much information and insight is available for free. Blogs are so much less complicated than people in DC want to make them. In so many ways, the blogosphere defies any of the conventional thinking that pervades the DC political punditry. And, the same old people and groups don't and can't control it.

The reason this is odd is because Joe is right: there's nothing complicated about blogs. Everything you might want to know about them you can learn just from reading them, and anyone can do that. There's nothing to search out and no community you have to become familiar with before you can understand them. So why do they continue to be so mysterious to so many people?

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MORE ABRAMOFF SLEAZINESS....Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, best known in recent years for shady lobbying practices related to casino gambling on Native American tribal lands, has long been involved in shady lobbying for Northern Marianas sweatshop ownwers as well. And guess what? He seems to have been involved in shady lobbying in Guam too! Small world!

But there's more. Today, the LA Times reports that three years ago, when Abramoff's Guam lobbying became the target of an investigation, George Bush stepped in to help him out:

In Guam, an American territory in the Pacific, investigators were looking into Abramoff's secret arrangement with Superior Court officials to lobby against a court revision bill then pending in the U.S. Congress.

....The Times reported in May that Abramoff was paid with a series of $9,000 checks [totaling $324,000] funneled through a Laguna Beach lawyer to disguise the lobbyist's role working for the Guam court. No separate contract was authorized for Abramoff's work.

....The transactions were the target of a grand jury subpoena issued Nov. 18, 2002, according to a copy obtained by The Times. The subpoena demanded that Anthony Sanchez, administrative director of the Guam Superior Court, release records involving the lobbying contract, including bills and payments.

A day later, the chief prosecutor, U.S. Atty. Frederick A. Black, who had launched the investigation, was demoted. A White House news release announced that Bush was replacing Black.

Needless to say, the investigation died as soon as Black, who was originally appointed by Bush Sr., was demoted. A bunch of other investigations into local corruption that had proved embarrassing to Guam's governor apparently died on the vine too.

But I'm sure it was all just a coincidence.

Kevin Drum 11:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HATE SPEECH vs. DEATH SPEECH....This is an open thread. Mark Kleiman asks the following question today:

In a world of political violence, what's the right line to draw between protected speech and incitement? Is Tony Blair right to tell the extremist Islamic preaches in London to cool it or face deportation? Should Israel do the same with the rabbis who are openly calling for Sharon's death, as they called for Rabin's? No doubt Pat Robertson will pretend to be shocked and dismayed if anyone acts on Robertson's suggestion that some additional vacancies on the Supreme Court would be pleasing to God by taking out Justice Ginsburg, but his shock and dismay wouldn't bring her back.

I tend to believe that generic "hate speech" laws are a bad idea, but that incitement to violence against named or clearly identifiable persons (such as repeating the fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie's death, or calling for the deaths of doctors who perform abortions) ought to be criminal even if the incitement is general as to who is to carry it out and when.

I am deeply unsure about whether and to what extent I think Mark is correct, although my initial instinct is to disagree with him pretty strongly unless the incitement is quite clear and specific. Mostly, though, this is because I'm not convinced that content-based speech restrictions can be defined in a broad enough way to make them workable but in a narrow enough way to keep them from being dangerous. Comments are open.

Kevin Drum 1:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 7, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

MARCH OF THE PENGUINS....Marian and I saw March of the Penguins this weekend, and it was pretty good. Of course, penguins are so fat and happy and absurd looking that you can hardly resist them, can you?

It was kind of weird, though. Morgan Freeman was a great narrator, but the script was pretty top heavy with syrupy treacle about how deeply the penguins love each other, how unbearable it is when an egg fails to hatch, their incredible dedication to life in an unforgiving climate, etc. etc. etc. This kind of anthropomorphizing doesn't normally bother me that much I do the same with my cats, after all but it was kind of jarring in this case because the whole takeaway of the movie is that these cute little critters are really just genetically programmed biological robots. They march to their breeding ground, then march to the sea, then back to the breeding ground, then off to the sea, back and forth, back and forth, world without end.

And love? As near as I could tell, they spend a grand total of about three or four days with their mates over the course of a year. The rest of the time is spent marching endlessly to and fro across Antarctica in gender segregated groups. Real lovebirds, those penguins.

But still lots of good footage of cute penguins sliding across the ice, stolid penguins marching across the ice, steadfast penguins huddling together on the ice, and surprisingly dexterous penguins swimming around under the ice. Worth seeing if you like penguins.

POSTSCRIPT: Before the movie started there was an ad for (I guess) a re-release of Ghostbusters. When it was over, a teenage girl in front of us turned to her mother and asked, "What was Ghostbusters? Was it a TV show or something?"


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By: Kevin Drum

BIG IDEAS....Michael Kinsley writes today that it's true that Republicans are the party of big ideas. Unfortunately, they're just the same big, dumb ideas they've been recycling for decades.

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TORA BORA....Members of the Bush administration have claimed for years that we didn't know in December 2001 whether or not Osama bin Laden was really trapped at Tora Bora and still don't to this day. Today, Newsweek reports that the CIA commander on the ground says bin Laden was there, and they knew it at the time:

In a forthcoming book, the CIA field commander for the agency's Jawbreaker team at Tora Bora, Gary Berntsen, says he and other U.S. commanders did know that bin Laden was among the hundreds of fleeing Qaeda and Taliban members. Berntsen says he had definitive intelligence that bin Laden was holed up at Tora Bora intelligence operatives had tracked him and could have been caught. "He was there," Berntsen tells Newsweek.

....In his book titled "Jawbreaker" the decorated career CIA officer criticizes Donald Rumsfeld's Defense Department for not providing enough support to the CIA and the Pentagon's own Special Forces teams in the final hours of Tora Bora....That backs up other recent accounts, including that of military author Sean Naylor, who calls Tora Bora a "strategic disaster" because the Pentagon refused to deploy a cordon of conventional forces to cut off escaping Qaeda and Taliban members.

So if the CIA had "definitive intelligence," how is it that the Pentagon ignored it? I guess we'll have to wait for the book to hear the rest of Berntsen's story. It's due in October.

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IRAQ WITHDRAWAL UPDATE....Eric Schmitt reports on the latest plans for withdrawal from Iraq:

In a classified briefing to senior Pentagon officials last month, the top American commander in the Middle East outlined a plan that would gradually reduce American forces in Iraq by perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 troops by next spring if conditions on the ground permitted, three senior military officers and Defense Department officials said this week.

....But in his assessment, given as part of a larger regional analysis, General Abizaid also warned that it is possible that the Pentagon might have to keep the current levels of about 138,000 American soldiers in Iraq throughout 2006 if security and political trends are unfavorable for a withdrawal. The number of troops will temporarily increase this December to provide security for Iraqi elections. And some troops leaving Iraq could be held in Kuwait as a reserve force.

...."When you wake up in the morning and lose 14 marines, people say, 'What's going on?' " said Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and a Republican, referring to the attack on Wednesday, when an armored troop carrier hit three stacked mines. "This is a very complicated equation." Mr. Gingrich, a member of a Pentagon advisory panel, said military casualties in Iraq could play a prominent role in next fall's Congressional elections.

It's hard to know what to make of this, but the evidence seems to be mounting that the administration is pretty serious about starting a withdrawal before the 2006 midterms. Since I support a phased withdrawal, I guess this is good news, but it's too bad that it's so obviously being timed to coincide with American elections. Doesn't that make it almost certain that the insurgents will time a massive uptick in attacks around October of next year in a misguided effort to affect the election results?

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By: Kevin Drum

WEEKEND PLAME UPDATE....From Murray Waas at the American Prospect:

I. Lewis Scooter Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, has told federal investigators that he met with New York Times reporter Judith Miller on July 8, 2003, and discussed CIA operative Valerie Plame, according to legal sources familiar with Libby's account.

There are 2,500 more words after that, but this is pretty much the only thing that's new. There's also a recap of information about the subpoena that Patrick Fitzgerald issued to Miller related to her meeting with Libby, but it basically amounts to the fact that Fitzgerald ordered her to produce "documents provided...by such government official on July 8, 2003." Miller, of course, has refused to comply, but the implication of Waas's piece is that Libby gave information to Miller, not the other way around as people have been speculating:

An attorney in private practice who once worked closely with Fitzgerald while both men were federal prosecutors said that the specific nature of Fitzgeralds request was a "good indication that [Fitzgerald] has specific information ... or perhaps even a witness who saw, or had other information" that Libby "might have brought documents to the meeting with Miller."

More grist for the mill. And as long as we're speculating, it's a little odd for a story like this to appear on the Prospect's site on a Saturday, isn't it? Perhaps trying to beat someone to the punch who has a story coming out on Sunday?

Kevin Drum 12:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 6, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

OHIO ELECTION FOLLOWUP....A reader points out that Matt Taibbi's followup to his Ohio election story in the New York Press, which I blogged about this morning, actually came out last Wednesday. My bad. It is, to say the least, underwhelming. Here's his promised interview with Sherrod Brown regarding the suspicions swirling around the Ohio vote:

"The thing is, we're not really free to keep pursuing it," he said. "The reality is that we have too many other things going on. We have more important immediate concerns."

....I asked him if he thought anyone would ever be able to tie [Ohio secretary of state Ken] Blackwell's numerous indiscretions to the Bush campaign.

"I doubt it," he said. "I doubt we'll ever know."

Well, shit, I thought. This is depressing.

The rest of the story is basically an excuse: Dems are just so damn busy these days fighting off the Nazi-like depredations of Republicans that they don't have time to spend on trivial stuff like a stolen presidential election. They would, mind you, because the election really was stolen, but their energy is completely taken up just getting Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner to recognize them during committee meetings.

Or something like that. It's pretty silly stuff, not worth wasting your time on. But at least there's a lesson here: don't tell people you're going to blow the lid off a story until you actually have a smoking gun in hand.

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By: Kevin Drum

WATCHING THE WATCHMEN....Jack Shafer, Slate's media critic, takes on the free floating media contempt that's now endemic in both the blogosphere and the country at large:

The larger point that the boneheads who so despise the media need to appreciate is that the mainstream American press is better than it's ever been. If you don't believe me, visit your local library and roll through a couple of miles of microfilm of the papers you're currently familiarly with. By any comparison, today's press is more accurate, ethical, reliable, independent, transparent, and trustworthy than ever. Skepticism is a healthy disposition in life. I wouldn't be a press critic if I regarded the press as hunky-dory. But mindless skepticism is mainly an excuse for ignorance. Even the people who denounce the New York Times as the bible of liberals ultimately get most of their useful news from it.

I happen to agree with him, but really, the only reason I'm bothering to link to this piece is to raise Bob Somerby's blood pressure. Somebody's got to do it, after all.

That aside, Shafer raises two points. First, based on a pair of Pew surveys from 2004 and 2005, he argues that you can't rely on polls showing that readers find daily newspapers less believable than they used to. After all, the very same polls that show declining believability also show remarkably high levels of favorable opinion toward daily newspapers. Similar dynamics are at work for both local and network TV news, with the favorability/believability gaps getting noticably wider and more puzzling after 2002 in all cases.

Shafer takes this as evidence that reader opinons are untrustworthy. I don't agree. I think it shows that lots of people just don't give a damn about believability. As with most blog readers, press consumers generally don't want the truth, they want their worldview confirmed. My guess is that most Fox viewers, for example, know perfectly well that they're getting a deliberately slanted viewpoint, but they don't care. That's what they want.

Shafer also points out that press dissatisfaction is largely aimed at other people's media it turns out that opinions of their own local newspaper and their own local newscasts is pretty high. As with opinions about schools and congressmen, people mostly think it's only everybody else's failings that are ruining things for the rest of us. So perhaps we should take their criticisms with a grain of salt.

Well, perhaps we should. But back on the subject of press quality, I think press critics everywhere would be well advised to take Shafer's challenge. Before you write another word about how lousy daily newspapers are today, go spend a few days with the microfilm machine at a local library. Read a few months of the Washington Post or Time magazine from the 50s. If that's not enough to scare you, try Harry Chandler's LA Times or Colonel McCormick's Chicago Tribune.

Seriously. Do it. Examine the amount of serious criticism of the government. Examine the use of anonymous sources. Examine the depth of coverage of complex issues. Examine the voice given to non-mainstream sources of information. Examine the institutional biases. And keep in mind that for most people, these were pretty much their only sources of news aside from a bit of radio here and there.

This isn't an excuse to be Pollyannaish about the modern media. Bias and access journalism are big problems in contemporary newsgathering, as are timidity and plain old ignorance. But if you think modern journalism has tragically Fallen from the imagined heights of some golden age of journalism, try checking out the golden age for yourself. It's not a pretty sight.

Kevin Drum 4:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WAITING FOR OHIO....Matt Taibbi has gotten a lot of attention in the left blogosphere for saying in a recent New York Press story that after starting out as a skeptic, he's suddenly become a believer that there was funny business in Ohio that cost John Kerry the presidency last year. His Road to Damascus moment came after he was invited to a panel discussion and then learned that the topic was "What went wrong in Ohio? A Harper's Magazine Forum on Voting Irregularities in the 2004 Election":

Oh, Christ, not that, I thought....Almost on principle I had refused even to look at any of the news stories surrounding the Ohio vote; there is a part of me that did not want to be associated with any sore-loser hysteria of the political margins, and in particular with this story, the great conspiratorial Snuffleupagus of the defeated left.

....Well, I don't think that way anymore. After attending this panel, and speaking to the congressmen involved in the preparation of the Conyers report (in particular Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a former Ohio secretary of state) I'm convinced that Ohio was a far more brazen and frightening subversion of democracy than Florida.

Here's the thing about Ohio. Until you really look at it, you won't understand its significance, which is this: the techniques used in this particular theft have the capacity to alter elections not by dozens or hundreds or even thousands of votes, but by tens of thousands.

I haven't blogged about this because Taibbi's article was only a teaser. He promises to lay out his actual case next week, and since I studied Ohio fairly closely last year and remained a skeptic even so, I didn't see much point in mentioning Taibbi's article until I saw Part 2.

For what it's worth, though, I thought I'd take the chance to mention that the best case I've seen so far in favor of foul play in Ohio came from Christopher Hitchens. Writing in Vanity Fair, he suggested that it wasn't the sheer number of irregularities that mattered so much as the fact that they all pointed in the same direction:

Machines are fallible and so are humans, and shit happens, to be sure, and no doubt many Ohio voters were able to record their choices promptly and without grotesque anomalies. But what strikes my eye is this: in practically every case where lines were too long or machines too few the foul-up was in a Democratic county or precinct, and in practically every case where machines produced impossible or improbable outcomes it was the challenger who suffered and the actual or potential Democratic voters who were shortchanged, discouraged, or held up to ridicule as chronic undervoters or as sudden converts to fringe-party losers.

Hitchens is asking, What are the odds? and it's a good question. As it happens, though, it's hard to say, because it's also possible that there were screwups that hurt Bush but no one had much incentive to dig them up and publicize them. The Kerry folks sure weren't likely to do it, and since they won, the Bush folks probably had better things to do with their time too.

Still, Hitchens is right: the coincidence is striking. I've never been much convinced that the discrepancy between the exit poll results and the actual vote tallies proves there was funny business in the vote tallying, since the exit polls were screwed up across the country, not just in Ohio, and are more plausibly explained by other factors anyway (see here, here, and here). Still, it's all a bit strange, you have to admit.

Anyway, this is all by way of saying that I'm still a skeptic, but I'm curious to see what Taibbi has to say next week. Perhaps Harper's can put this back on the front burner.

UPDATE: Sorry, false alarm. Taibbi's followup is already out, and it's distinctly underwhelming. More here.

Kevin Drum 1:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 5, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

BUSH AND THE TRUTH....I have to run off for a few hours, but I thought I'd leave you with this cheerful news:

Americans' approval of President Bush's handling of Iraq is at its lowest level yet, according to an AP-Ipsos poll that also suggests fewer than half now think he is honest.

....Approval of Bush's handling of Iraq, which had been hovering in the low- to mid-40s most of the year, dipped to 38 percent. Midwesterners and young women and men with a high school education or less were most likely to disapprove of Bush on his handling of Iraq in the past six months.

Fewer than half think he's honest? Goodness. I wonder why?

POSTSCRIPT: Full results are here. Some nifty graphs are here.

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By: Kevin Drum

APPLE WOES....Via Ann Althouse, the Washington Post answers a question today that's been on my mind for a while: why do Red Delicious apples taste so lousy these days? I could swear they used to taste better in my childhood, but we think that about pretty much everything, don't we?

Well, it turns out they did taste better in my childhood:

In the 1980s heyday of the Red Delicious, it represented three-quarters of the harvest in Washington state, epicenter of the apple industry. By 2000, it made up less than half, and in 2003, the crop had shrunk to just 37 percent of the state's harvest....

Who's to blame for the decline of Red Delicious? Everyone, it seems. Consumers were drawn to the eye candy of brilliantly red apples, so supermarket chains paid more for them. Thus, breeders and nurseries patented and propagated the most rubied mutations, or "sports," that they could find, and growers bought them by the millions, knowing that these thick-skinned wonders also would store for ages.

The result was lousy tasting apples. There's also this:

The decline of one of the most widely grown apples in history is momentous to observers like [apple historian Lee] Calhoun. Unlike, say, the McIntosh, a wildling that made its way into commerce slowly, the Red Delicious was groomed for stardom from birth.

Ah, the wonderful McIntosh, my favorite apple. You can have your Galas, your Jazzes, and your Fujis, just give me my lovely McIntoshes. And "wildling" sounds so romantic!

Unfortunately, my local Gelson's no longer carries McIntosh apples. Why? I'm told that fruit has something called "seasons," and is therefore only available when it's "in season." Can this "season theory" really be the cause of my McIntosh drought? It seems like remarkably poor planning. Or is it just that Gelson's has decided to stop carrying McIntoshes? I guess I should ask. In the meantime, I've been reduced to eating Jazz apples for lunch. They aren't bad, but they're no McIntosh.

Kevin Drum 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FUZZY MATH....Despite the fact that Martin Peretz is its editor-in-chief, I respect the New Republic. They have a fine stable of writers and produce a considerable body of interesting journalism on a weekly basis.

This week's cover story, though, left me breathless. It's allegedly written by Niall Ferguson and Laurence J. Kotlikoff, but if their bylines weren't at the top I would have guessed it was an entry in a high school essay writing contest. It's called "The New New Deal," and it presents a plan to deal with skyrocketing Social Security and Medicare costs in the future. The plan has three parts:

  1. Tax reform. All current federal taxes (personal income tax, corporate income tax, estate tax, and payroll taxes) will be scrapped. They will be replaced by a 33% federal sales tax. Poor people will get rebates to reduce their tax burden.

  2. Social Security. The current system will be frozen and eventually wound down. In its place, workers will be required to pay 7.15% of their wages (up to the current ceiling) into a private account, which will be invested by the government in a "market-weighted global index fund of stocks, bonds, and real-estate securities."

  3. Medicare. Medicare and Medicaid will be abolished. They will be replaced by universal healthcare vouchers for everyone. Healthy people will get small vouchers and sick people will get big vouchers, which they will then use to purchase private health insurance.

This makes no sense. Let me just toss out a few problems off the top of my head:

  • A 33% sales tax on everything? Houses? Rent? College education? And they think this is somehow going to be more popular than our current tax system? Huh?

  • I don't think there's a tax expert in the world who thinks a 33% sales tax is feasible. The incentives to cheat are simply too great, which is why no country in the world has a sales tax higher than about 10%. There are lots of other reasons to think a 33% sales tax is unworkable, too, and you can read them here.

  • A 7.15% payroll tax for Social Security? Currently, Social Security is financed by a 12.4% tax, and as we all know, this is not enough to finance the system in the future. So how would a 7.15% tax do that? Are F&K assuming that investing in the stock market is so lucrative that it will double the returns we get through the current system?

  • Taken together, the sales tax which is equivalent to a flat 25% income tax and the payroll tax add up to the equivalent of a 32% income tax. Since an average household currently pays about 20% of its income in total federal taxes, this amounts to a massive tax increase for average families. For rich people, who don't spend all their income, it would be a very nice tax cut.

  • How are those medical vouchers going to be financed? Via handwaving, apparently. I won't excerpt the handwaving here, but even F&K say only that it would finance a "large part" of their voucher proposal. What about the rest of it? And how about a little more detail on how this plan supposedly reins in healthcare costs?

  • There's more handwaving elsewhere, including what's virtually a footnote at the end that their plan also requires us to "reduce federal discretionary spending by one-fifth." Have fun with that!

I don't get it. The numbers don't seem to add up, the sales tax idea is unworkable, there's no indication of how any of this reins in spending, and it doesn't seem to solve any problems that our current system couldn't solve. I'm all for universal healthcare, but I hardly see why we need this squirrelly plan in order to get it. What's dorm room bull session stuff like this doing on the cover of the New Republic?

Kevin Drum 2:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

STEM CELLS AND THE DOCTOR....Charles Krauthammer that's Dr. Krauthammer to you and me writes today that he's in favor of a Senate bill that would allow federal funding for stem cell research that's performed on embryos which would otherwise be discarded. But then he sounds the alarm over the spectre of....spare body parts:

The real threat to our humanity is the creation of new human life willfully for the sole purpose of making it the means to someone else's end dissecting it for its parts the way we would dissect something with no more moral standing than a mollusk or paramecium. The real Brave New World looming before us is the rise of the industry of human manufacture, where human embryos are created not to produce children the purpose of IVF clinics but for spare body parts.

Please. Can't these guys come up with a new schtick? The "spare body parts" bogeyman is getting really old.

For those of us who haven't scared ourselves into premature senility by watching too many late night movies, therapeutic cloning offers great promise as a way of producing genetically matched stem cells from a donor that can then be used to repair damaged tissue such as bone marrow or brain cells. Yes, those are "body parts," but it's a far cry from the image Krauthammer leaves of vast warehouses full of cloned human beings just waiting to be harvested for their precious bodily fluids.

If the time ever comes when a doctor asks me if I want to donate a few of my cells in order to create some bone marrow to cure my leukemia, I'd like to be able to answer "yes." If Krauthammer doesn't, that's fine. But he should cut the "Brave New World" crap and agree that each of us should be allowed to make our own decision on this most personal of matters.

POSTSCRIPT: Also worth noting: Krauthammer's whitewash of "the president's sincere and principled" effort to restrict research on stem cell lines in 2001. There was nothing either sincere or principled about it, and Bush knew at the time that there weren't enough existing stem cell lines to allow meaningful research to go forward. Check out Nicholas Thompson's "Science Friction" from the July 2003 Monthly for more.

Kevin Drum 12:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

NO QUESTIONS NOVAK....My two cents on Novak: It's really impossible to overstate the extent to which Novak has been coddled and protected for decades by the perfect set-up. He answers to no one--not to an editor (his column is syndicated--if papers don't like it, all they can do is drop it), not to a producer (he executive-produced his own shows), and certainly not to fellow journalists who have, out of a misguided sense of collegiality and friendship, avoided asking him tough questions.

With very few exceptions, Novak has not only refused to answer questions about the Plame affair--he has threatened to immediately terminate any interview in which such questions are raised. That was the ground rule for my interview with him last fall, and I'm almost certain (although I could never get anyone at CNN to confirm it for me) that he threatened to walk off the set if anyone at the network asked him about Plame. The absurdity of that arrangement finally became too much for the network a few weeks ago, as the spotlight on this case heated up, and he has since grudgingly tolerated some queries on-air.

It's not just that Novak doesn't want to answer questions; what's clear is that he doesn't think he should have to. The comparison that keeps coming to my mind is with Jack Nicholson's Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men. "You need me on that wall. You want me on that wall. And you can't handle it if I have to out a few CIA agents now and then."

My interview with Novak from our December 2004 issue, as well as an explanation of how he created his own ethics-free zone, and a theory about why the Washington press corps handles him with kid gloves can be found here.

Amy Sullivan 12:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 4, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

NOVAK'S MELTDOWN....Bob Novak got upset today on CNN when James Carville interrupted him, muttered "I think that's bullshit" in Carville's general direction, and then stalked off the set. There's video and reaction at Crooks and Liars. I'll never hear the end of it if I don't post about this, so consider this an open thread to discuss Novak's meltdown.

It beats me what happened. It seemed like just the usual banter between Novak and Carville, who have done this kind of thing about a thousand times before, so I don't know what set Novak off although I understand that he's been under a lot of pressure lately over some controversy or other. Planegate? Something like that, anyway.

In any case, fishbowlDC reports that CNN says, "We've asked Mr. Novak to take some time off." The world is a brighter place already.

Kevin Drum 7:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GWOT vs. GSAVE....The topic of the day of yesterday, actually was GWOT vs. GSAVE. GWOT, as you know, is the Global War on Terror, which we've been fighting since 9/11, while GSAVE is the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism, the new acronym unveiled by the administration last week.

Or was it? I've resisted any mockery aimed at GSAVE because I think it's a better description of what's going on and I'd actually be happy if it turned out to represent a belated change of heart by administration hawks. Last night, though, I got curious about something else: where did this whole acronym change really come from, anyway? I'm not sure I've gotten it entirely right, but here's what I pieced together.

First, there was a story two months ago by Susan Glasser in the Washington Post that foreshadowed the whole thing. Glasser reported that the Bush administration had "launched a high-level internal review of its efforts to battle international terrorism," and that the review was focused on moving policy away from merely killing al-Qaeda leaders and toward a broader "strategy against violent extremism."

Then, for the next two months, there was nothing. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Richard Myers gave a few speeches in which they used the phrase "struggle against violent extremism," and Myers said he personally disliked the phrase "war on terrorism," but that was about it.

On July 26, that all changed. Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker wrote a short New York Times piece in which they noted the use of the phrase in recent speeches and then made the specific claim that this was an indication that the Bush administration was "retooling its slogan for the fight against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups":

Administration and Pentagon officials say the revamped campaign has grown out of meetings of President Bush's senior national security advisers that began in January, and it reflects the evolution in Mr. Bush's own thinking nearly four years after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Schmitt/Shanker piece is maddeningly vague, though. Not a single person is directly quoted as saying that the phrase was officially being changed across the board. Rumsfeld and Myers are quoted using the phrase and a few other people are quoted defending the phrase, but only anonymous "senior administration officials" are used to backstop the assertion that this was some kind of official policy decision.

Over the next week, Nexis reported over a hundred mentions of the phrase "global struggle against violent extremism," but as near as I can tell there's not one bit of new reporting in the lot. Every single article, editorial, blog post, and late night comic routine is based on Schmitt and Shanker's New York Times piece.

But for all the press attention, there wasn't a peep from the White House for over a week until Monday, when George Bush reportedly said at a Homeland Security Council meeting that "no one checked with me." Then, on Wednesday, Richard Stevenson reported in the New York Times that Bush made his position clear, saying, "Make no mistake about it, we are at war," and then using the phrase "war on terror" no less than five times.

So what the hell happened here? Did Rumsfeld and Myers go off the reservation? Did Schmitt and Shanker screw the pooch, inventing a major policy shift out of a few vaguely worded remarks from anonymous sources? Or was it a deliberate effort to run GSAVE up the flagpole, which was then hastily hauled back in when it became the butt of jokes?

A followup from Schmitt and Shanker sure seems to be called for here. After all, the whole thing seems to have rested almost entirely on their story, and it would be nice if they provided some more detail on what they were told and how they interpreted it. They don't have to name their sources or anything like that. Just let us know how this story took shape. Enquiring minds want to know.

Kevin Drum 6:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RETREAT FROM IRAQ....Spencer Ackerman examines the proposed 2006 drawdown of troops in Iraq that was floated recently by the Pentagon:

Given that the right spent 2004 arguing that a Kerry administration would pull off precisely such a surrender, National Review editor Rich Lowry turned to a "well-informed source" to find out what was happening. The source replied that down was, in fact, up: "It's exactly what we have been saying within the administration for the last year and half ... Gens. [John] Abizaid and [George] Casey are more and more confident that the necessary conditions for a drawn down [sic] will be met." That's a lie, but whatever. As someone who's argued that the only hope of salvaging any decent outcome of the war depends on a speedy U.S. departure, I'll take what I can get. We went into Iraq deceitfully. Does anyone expect us to exit honestly?

That sounds about right. The rest of the column is worth reading too.

Kevin Drum 4:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RESCUE WORK....I didn't notice this when I first read about Tuesday's Air France crash in Toronto:

Rescue crews arrived 52 seconds after the plane crashed by which time officials said a majority of passengers already had escaped. Everyone was evacuated within about two minutes.

That's pretty damn impressive on all counts.

Kevin Drum 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BOLTON ON THE JOB....Who says John Bolton can't be an effective diplomat? From the BBC:

Beijing will work with the United States to block a plan to add new permanent members to the UN Security Council, China's UN ambassador says.

Wang Guangya said he agreed the deal with the new US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, at a meeting.

Ah, our great allies, the Chinese. It's good to see that Bolton knows just where to go when he needs some likeminded help putting sand in the gears of UN reform.

Kevin Drum 3:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HELICOPTER PARENTS....PART 2....In response to my post this morning about the Wall Street Journal's discovery of "helicopter parents," I got an email that I thought was good enough to post in its entirety. I can't personally vouch for or against anything my untenured and therefore anonymous correspondent says, but it's certainly entertaining. Enjoy.

The WSJ is not "on" to something. It's late to the damn party. For a few years now I've been teaching freshman comp and assorted other undergraduate English courses to students at [an expensive private university in the heartland] which basically means the students all started studying for college entrance exams in kindergarten, they're all pre-law or pre-med in their freshman year, and they come from fantastically affluent families (or else families that have decided Little Ian and Laura are worth bankrupting the family for a lifetime) who believe that their $45,000 a year entitles them and their students to set the pedagogical agenda.

We will ignore, for the moment, the myriad ways this tendency is reinforced by the deans offices (increasingly run by platoons of "student affairs" staff whose expertise seems to have derived from a mishmash of self-actualizing pop-psych, teen-marketing ala "Ms Magazine" and a firm belief that watching reruns of Full House will explain the pre-history of today's college students). Instead, let's focus on Parents Weekend, when instructors like me can expect nattering, officious parents to pop in to my classroom unannounced, sit in the front row (often in front of their children) and assert their parently prerogatives to participate.

For tenured faculty, this experience can be a source of great fun. One professor in my department couldn't wait for parents to visit his class on religion and literature, in which he invited them to engage him in questions of faith and scriptural "truth." He didn't consider himself to have done any good if at least a few parents didn't leave red-faced and even more certain that the academy was under the sway of atheists and intellectual profligates.

For the rest of us, though, parents weekend can inaugurate a hellish semester. On the basis of having "met" me, some parents often then feel empowered to call the director of freshman writing or the chair of the dept throughout the rest of the semester (and, naturally, once grades have been turned in) to challenge pretty much any aspect of the course that Ian and Laura have found objectionable, "unfair" (this usually involves unquantifiables like what "good writing" is) or just unduly difficult. After all, undergraduate degrees are means, not ends, you know, and I really need a good grade in this course if I'm going to get that internship or study-abroad fellowship or acceptance to law school.

I could go on but I think I detest the bitterness and cynicism this brings out in me more than I actually detest these meddling parents and their student-children, still firmly attached at the teat.

Upshot: I don't think I'd call this a trend, because though the bad moments leave their imprimatur on your memory, they are far outnumbered (if not always outweighed) by the classes and semesters that go ok. But if mistakenly trendifying something that's probably more accurately described as an annoying symptom of contemporary American social and culture life is what it takes to shame people into removing themselves to a more appropriate distance from their children's education, I'm willing to pay that price.

Kevin Drum 2:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NOSTALGIC FOR NEWT....Mark Schmitt, in a parenthetical aside today, says this:

One of the less well-recognized facts about Newt Gingrich and his revolution was the fact that he was extremely solicitous of Republican moderates like Nancy Johnson who became his strongest supporters because they wanted a vigorous party even as the party respected their differences of opinion. Gingrich's "Contract" was fairly anodyne, not a sharply ideological document, to protect that diversity. It was later rebellions by Armey and DeLay among others that brought the real Bolsheviks to power.

The sad thing is that he's right. It's hard to believe, but the leadership of the modern Republican party is now so insane that liberal Democrats can legitimately look back and say that, by comparison, Newt wasn't really all that bad.

Yes, you heard that right. Newt. Wasn't. Really. All. That. Bad. I think I'll spend the rest of the day hiding under my bed.

Kevin Drum 2:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

OFF TO SCHOOL....Via Joanne Jacobs, the Wall Street Journal reports that universities are becoming ever more inundated with demands from "helicopter parents":

A new generation of overinvolved parents are flooding campus orientations, meddling in registration and interfering with students' dealings with professors, administrators and roommates, school officials say.

....The University of Vermont employs "parent bouncers," students trained to divert moms and dads who try to attend registration and explain diplomatically that they're not invited....At the University of Georgia, students who get frustrated or confused during registration have been known to interrupt their advisers to whip out a cellphone, speed-dial their parents and hand the phone to the adviser, saying, "Here, talk to my mom."

....Administrators prefer that students pick their own majors and courses. At California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Calif., last week, a mother showed up without her son to register him for classes and meet with his academic adviser, says Andrene Kaiwi-Lenting, the university's orientation director. She intercepted the mother and urged her to leave and let her son come alone later; "there's going to be a time when he needs to do this on his own," she says she told the mother. But the woman said her son was traveling and refused to be dissuaded.

A couple of weeks ago a friend of ours was visiting and asked if I had a copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare that she could look at. It turned out she needed to buy a copy of Shakespeare for her daughter's summer school class and wasn't sure which one to buy. I suggested that the best bet was to buy a well regarded edition, but buy it at a used bookstore to save money. This prompted a frenzied hour of online book browsing and phone calling.

About halfway through this, I suddenly wondered what was going on. "Why don't you just have her buy her own book?" I asked. After all, that's what she (presumably) does for all her other classes. I never really got an answer to that, though, and the Shakespeare frenzy continued unabated.

So is the Journal onto something? Or is this just one of those all-too-common anecdotal scare stories that makes for a satisfying round of tsk-tsking among its readers but doesn't really prove anything? The WSJ article doesn't provide any actual evidence one way or the other. Still, it sure seems to be on the mark, doesn't it? Or are we old fogies just kidding ourselves about how independent our generation was?

Kevin Drum 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ROBERTS AND GAY RIGHTS....Richard Serrano of the LA Times reports today that Supreme Court nominee John Roberts was a key player in a 1996 pro bono case involving gay rights:

Gay rights activists at the time described the court's 6-3 ruling as the movement's most important legal victory. The dissenting justices were those to whom Roberts is frequently likened for their conservative ideology: Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Roberts' work on behalf of gay rights activists, whose cause is anathema to many conservatives, appears to illustrate his allegiance to the credo of the legal profession: to zealously represent the interests of the client, whoever it might be.

It's probably a sign of my slow deterioration into political senility that I'm less interested in the actual story here than I am in the meta-story. Why did Serrano write this piece? Who suggested it to him? And why did they suggest it?

Was it to make Roberts look less doctrinaire and therefore more palatable to liberals? Or was it designed to plant seeds of doubt about his doctrinal trustworthiness among conservatives? Or to insinuate that maybe Roberts is gay after all? Or what?

Deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole we go.....

Kevin Drum 12:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 3, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

EMINENT DOMAIN....Stephen Bainbridge reprints a graphic from today's Wall Street Journal showing that in the wake of the Kelo decision, which ruled that the constitution doesn't prohibit governments from using eminent domain to take land for economic development, states are beginning to enact laws that restrict the use of eminent domain for the purpose of economic development.

Without taking a specific stand on any of the proposed statutes, this strikes me as the best possible result. The Supreme Court shouldn't have invented a new constitutional restriction on eminent domain, but state and local governments should enact laws that limit land grabs designed solely to increase tax revenue. And if different states want different rules, and want to apply those rules differently in different areas, that's fine too.

So far, this all seems to be working out pretty well.

Kevin Drum 8:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

COX CABLE PSA....Here's a public service message to all my homies in Irvine (or thereabouts) who get their internet service via Cox Cable. Cox recently "upgraded" their cable plant, and as part of the "upgrade" they apparently reduced the bandwidth available to each home. This means that cable modems need to sync with the network more precisely, which in turn means they can lose synchronization more easily. This especially affects older Toshiba cable modems, which have been failing in large numbers.

So if you're using Cox in Orange County for internet access, and you have a Toshiba cable modem that intermittently loses its connection, call tech support and scream bloody murder that you want it replaced. Even if you purchased your cable modem, scream bloody murder that you want it replaced anyway. After all, it's their "upgrade" that's causing them to fail.

That is all.

Kevin Drum 8:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KARL ROVE'S CALL LOG....Mark Kleiman suggests that last Friday's testimony by two of Karl Rove's aides contained a buried smoking gun. It turns out that not only did Karl Rove speak to Time reporter Matt Cooper about Valerie Plame back in 2003, but he mysteriously didn't log the call. Says Mark:

Obviously, call logs aren't of any value unless all calls are logged: the whole point is to allow someone to say, months later, "No, I know I didn't talk to X on that date; I've checked my call logs." This reads to me like strong evidence that Rove and his crew knew at the time they were doing something they didn't want to get caught doing.

In prosecutorese, that's called "evidence of consciousness of guilt," and it's extremely helpful in proving intent. We already know that Rove disclosed classified information to Cooper. The only remaining legally relevant question is whether he did so with the requisite criminal intent. The omission of the call from the log if the "transferred call" explanation can be shown to be false would be a powerful help to a prosecutor.

Mark may have a point. After all, we know that in his initial testimony Rove lied and said he hadn't spoken to Cooper at all. We know that when he later recanted that testimony, he continued to lie by claiming the call was actually about welfare reform and that Plame only came up incidentally. And now we know that he failed to log his call with Cooper. Since call logging is standard procedure, this could only happen if Rove specifically asked one of his aides not to log the call.

"Evidence of consciousness of guilt"? Sounds like a reasonable proposition to me.

Kevin Drum 8:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

POLAR FLEECED....Alaska's Ted Stevens has long been one of the most mockable of senators, a guy whose main goal in life seems to be little more than shoveling as much money as possible to his state. And he's good at it. In fact, unlike other senators, who mainly specialize in garden variety pork like roads and army bases, Stevens has hit on an ingenious new system: funnel other states' pork through native Alaskan front companies via loopholes in federal contracting laws. Benjamin Wallace-Wells explains in the current issue of the Monthly:

There's no natural reason why an out-of-the way place like Anchoragea place so far from the American mainland that Russia appears on the local TV station's weather maps, but not Seattleshould have become a center of the government contracting industry. Native corporations, however, were holding some valuable cards. The combination of their sole-source contracting exemption and status as minority-owned firms gave them an advantage over competitors, a benefit that [contract guru Mike] Brown leveraged. He began modestly with base management subcontracts, hiring smart project managers he knew from the contracting world to run them. Running base services isn't rocket science, Brown told me.

But there were problems. Brown found that he couldn't find enough Eskimos with management experience to run even these simple projects. By law, minority-owned corporations and their subsidiaries are required to actually have a minority as CEO. Brown had an ace up his sleeve: Like CEOs of many of the native organizations, he had a tight relationship with Stevens and was able to get the senator on the phone. Stevens soon got his colleagues to pass legislation exempting native companies from the minority CEO rule. Then Chugach grew too big to qualify for programs favoring small businesses; Stevens lobbied for and passed an amendment letting native corporations retain their small business status regardless of how large they become. And when Chugach began to approach the nine-year limit for a single company's participation in the small business program, Stevens won yet another statutory break allowing Alaskan native firms to create endless new subsidiaries so that the parent firm could have indefinite access to contracts.

Ingenious? Sure. Corrupt? Quite possibly. A blueprint for the future? Definitely:

Many in the GOP leadership view it as a model for the kind of federal government they would like to see more of. It is a privatized system that circumvents the civil service, enriches politically-connected corporations, provides a trickle of money to the poor, and secures Republican power. For some conservatives, in other words, the Eskimo loophole is not a failed experiment in social engineering. It is the future.

Read the whole thing. It's a fascinating story of politics in the era of the modern Republican party.

Kevin Drum 2:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SAUDI ARABIA'S GERONTOCRACY....With the death of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd and the accession of his half-brother Abdullah to the throne, another half-brother, Sultan, has been designated the new crown prince. According to Simon Henderson, Sultan was born in 1924, but for political reasons the Saudis are lying about his age. On Monday, the Saudi Press Agency said Sultan was born in 1930:

1930!? Sultan is just 75 this year! I must admit I laughed on reading this. For years I have noticed that Sultan has understated his age, but 1930 set a new record....It is the Saudi metaphorical equivalent of hair dye, although Sultan's black hair is not genuine either (and a senior British official who met him recently said he was wearing makeup, too).

....So Saudi Arabia is facing a future of kings with short reigns. They will probably be dubbed "Saudi Brezhnevs," after the increasingly decrepit leadership in the final years of the Soviet Union. It was entirely predictable: 12 years ago, a former British adviser to the Saudi royals preferred a Monty Python metaphor, "The parrots will fall off their perch in rapid succession."

The logical way around this problem is for the House of Saud to choose a significantly younger king although for him to be called a "Saudi Gorbachev" would give Riyadh heartburn. Within the line of sons of Ibn Saud, Interior Minister Prince Nayef (born 1933) and the governor of Riyadh Province, Prince Salman (born 1936), would be contenders. Dropping a generation is often mentioned, but would probably be too contentious which group of grandsons would benefit, to the consternation of their cousins?

I guess this is the peril of picking a long line of brothers instead of passing the succession on via eldest sons. Bottom line: don't expect any big changes from these guys.

Kevin Drum 2:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH AND EVOLUTION....PZ Meyers has a post with links to everyone who's criticized George Bush's recent statement that Intelligent Design ought to be taught alongside evolution in public schools. So how come I'm not on the list?

Outrage fatigue, I guess. Besides, it's not like this is something new from the mouth of George Bush. Here are some quotes via Nexis from the 1999 campaign:

The Washington Post, August 27, 1999:
Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said, "He believes both creationism and evolution ought to be taught.... He believes it is a question for states and local school boards to decide but believes both ought to be taught."

The Kansas City Star, September 9, 1999:
"I think it's an interesting part of knowledge (to have) a theory of evolution and a theory of creationism. People should be exposed to different points of view. Should the people choose in my state (to adopt a rule similar to Kansas') I have no problem" with public schools teaching both creationism and evolution.

Reuters, November 4, 1999:
Bush supports the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in public schools. Bush stated, "I have absolutely no problem with children learning different forms of how the world was formed." Bush believes decisions regarding curriculum should be made by local school districts.

And that's straight up fire-and-brimstone creationism. If the guy doesn't have a problem with that, of course he thinks Intelligent Design is a fine topic for our public schools to teach biology students.

Actually, what bugged me most about this whole affair was reading the faux outrage from Bush's conservative supporters in the blogosphere, as if they had no idea he felt this way before this week. Give it a rest, guys. Bush thinks creationism sounds great, Tom DeLay thinks the teaching of evolution was responsible for the Columbine shootings, and Bill Frist a medical doctor! is so scared of the Christian right that last December on "This Week" he hemmed and hawed and fidgeted like a naughty schoolchild while repeatedly declining to say whether he thought HIV-AIDS could be transmitted through tears or sweat.

Note to Bush supporters: You all knew what you were voting for when you put these guys in power. I'm happy to see you on the side of the angels here, but it's a little late to pretend to be shocked that the Republican leadership feels this way.

Kevin Drum 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 2, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

OHIO SECOND RESULTS....Unsurprisingly, dark horse Democrat Paul Hackett has lost his bid to defeat Jean Schmidt in a special election in Ohio's heavily Republican second congressional district. Still, at least he made them sweat. Hopefully he'll try again in 2006.

Kevin Drum 11:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DUST TO DUST....Robert Norton of Pekin, Illinois, died recently. His neighbor, Brenda Loete, had this to say about him:

We didn't really know him. We just had him arrested....Normally, if we had him arrested in the spring he'd be gone for the summer and we wouldn't have to worry about him until the next spring.

That's sociable small-town America for you! Click the link for the full story.

Kevin Drum 9:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE MOST INTERESTING GUY IN WASHINGTON?....The Note tells us that Patrick Fitzgerald has been subpoenaing more people in the Valerie Plame case:

ABC News has learned that one was Susan Ralston, Rove's long-time right hand. The other, per ABC News' Jake Tapper, was Israel "Izzy" Hernandez, Rove's former left hand (and now a top Commerce Department official). It isn't clear if either had been asked to testify before last week.

....The appearances of Ralston and Hernandez suggests at least part of the focus remains on Rove, although his attorney tells ABC News that he still believes Rove is not a target of the investigation.

Well, he sure sounds like a target to me. I mean, if a federal prosecutor suddenly started subpoenaing all your aides and coworkers, wouldn't you be a wee bit on the worried side?

Kevin Drum 3:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CAFTA AND THE DEMOCRATS....David Sirota has been banging hard on the dozen or so "turncoat" Democrats who voted for CAFTA, allowing it to pass by the razor thin margin of 217-215 (see here and here, for example). In particular, he's pleased that Nancy Pelosi is planning to put the screws to at least a couple of the defectors, suggesting that "it shows that the Democratic Party is getting serious about creating a culture of accountability."

I'd like to add something to this that I don't think David has mentioned. (If I missed it, apologies.) It's this: the problem with the defectors is not so much that they allowed CAFTA to pass. It's not that noxious a bill, after all, and probably not one that's worth going to the mattresses over solely on its merits.

But there's more to it. Aside from demonstrating strength and resolve and a variety of other positive character traits, there's another thing that Democratic unity on CAFTA would have accomplished: it would have forced Tom DeLay to put the screws to a dozen more of his people than he otherwise had to. This would have forced him to use up political capital, and it also would have forced some Republican congressmen in weak districts to vote for CAFTA whether they liked it or not. As things stand, though, a dozen Republican congressmen in districts that are anti-CAFTA were able to vote against it.

If, instead, they had been forced to vote for it, they would have been more vulnerable in 2006. This is Politics 101, and Democratic congressmen who don't understand this really shouldn't be in politics. If you want to become a majority party, you have to do things that weaken the opposition, and playing hardball on CAFTA would have done just that. It was an opportunity missed.

Kevin Drum 2:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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HARD HITTING SCRUTINY WATCH....There are lots of places you can go for serious, nuanced commentary about the death of King Fahd and its meaning for the future of Saudi Arabia, but since all of them boil down to "It's hard to say," why bother? Instead, here is Abu Aardvark's look at how the Saudi Arabian media has handled Fahd's death:

Let's see how al-Hayat handled it: "a hero in the liberation of Kuwait"... "an era of development"... "history will remember his courage"... "the smartest son of his generation" (what, not the smartest man in history? Is this veiled criticism?) (ha, ha, get it? "veiled"?) (no, it's funny because one of al-Arabiya's headlines is get this "Saudi women: unprecedented achievements in the era of King Fahd"! Really... could I make this up?) (Coincidentally, the Women of Elaph were absent for the second day running... really, is not showing half-dressed young women what Fahd would have wanted?)

Ugh. I'm feeling a bit ill.

There's more where that came from if you want a broader overview of sycophantic Gulf coverage of the king's death. As the Aardvark says, "Thank the gods for al-Jazeera, today."

Kevin Drum 12:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PLAME vs. WILSON....Anne Kornblut has a short piece in the New York Times today that's devoted to a small but crucial topic in the Valerie Plame affair: why did Robert Novak initially refer to her by her maiden name, "Valerie Plame," instead of her married name, "Valerie Wilson"? After all, as Mike Allen of the Washington Post pointed out two years ago, Plame is a name "which she had used overseas and has not been using publicly." Socially she used the name Valerie Wilson.

Novak has suggested, although he's rather artfully not actually said, that her maiden name was available in public records and that's where he could have gotten it. And that's true. It was listed in Joe Wilson's Who's Who entry, for one, and probably in other public documents as well. Marriage records are public documents in most states, for example.

But that's not the point. The question is not whether Plame's maiden name was available with a bit of digging, the question is why Novak used it. Kornblut tiptoes around the question a bit, so let's lay it out. Ask yourself if this scenario makes sense:

  1. Novak talks to his source. "Joe Wilson's wife worked at the CIA," says the source. "She recommended him for the Niger mission."

  2. Novak asks for her full name. Oddly, the source doesn't know it.

  3. Hmmm, thinks Novak. So he checks around and finds out that her name is Valerie.

  4. But Novak doesn't stop there. For some reason, "Valerie Wilson" doesn't satisfy him, even though that's plainly the most convenient way to refer to "Joe Wilson's wife" in a newspaper column. So he noses around in Who's Who, discovers her maiden name is Plame, and decides to refer to her as Valerie Plame.

This makes no sense. If a married woman uses her married name, no reporter would even think of wasting time tracking down her maiden name and using it.

And thus the mystery: since it's obvious that Novak had no reason to chase down her maiden name himself, someone gave it to him. One of his sources deliberately referred to her as "Valerie Plame," a name she used only on Agency business, and suggested that Novak refer to her the same way. Novak himself tacitly admitted this a week after his original column, telling Newsday, "I didn't dig it out, it was given to me. They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it."

So who was it? And why? I suspect that a lot of pieces would fall into place if we knew the answer to those questions.

Kevin Drum 11:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DOMESTIC PARTNERS IN CALIFORNIA....It's true that California sometimes seems like loon central, and it's also true that Sacramento is almost completely disfunctional. Still, there are times when it seems like it's the only sane state in the union. Here's the latest advance for gay rights in the Golden State:

Businesses that provide discounts, special services or other privileges to married couples must extend the same rights and benefits to same-sex couples registered as state domestic partners, the California Supreme Court decided 6-0 Monday.

Hooray for California!

Kevin Drum 1:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAN UPDATE....The CIA says that Iran isn't as close to building a nuclear bomb as we used to think:

Until recently, Iran was judged, according to February testimony by Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, to be within five years of the capability to make a nuclear weapon. Since 1995, U.S. officials have continually estimated Iran to be "within five years" from reaching that same capability. So far, it has not.

The new estimate extends the timeline, judging that Iran will be unlikely to produce a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient for an atomic weapon, before "early to mid-next decade," according to four sources familiar with that finding. The sources said the shift, based on a better understanding of Iran's technical limitations, puts the timeline closer to 2015 and in line with recently revised British and Israeli figures.

So in only the past decade our official estimates on Iran's nuclear capabilities have moved from 2000 to 2015. That's a real confidence builder in our official estimates, isn't it?

Expect the Michael Ledeen crowd to be furious over this. The CIA's report concedes that "left to its own devices, Iran is determined to build nuclear weapons," but that won't be enough to save them from the wrath of the mega-hawk crowd, which is still desperately trying to salvage its reputation after being proved wrong in virtually all particulars about Iraq. Expect a coordinated nuclear attack directed toward the softies at the CIA soon.

Kevin Drum 1:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE FANTASY WORLD OF GEORGE W. BUSH....Does George Bush really believe that actual evidence doesn't matter if it happens to conflict with his own instinct? Apparently he really does. Here's what he had to say last year about steroid use:

The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football, and other sports is dangerous....So tonight I call on team owners, union representatives, coaches, and players to take the lead, to send the right signal, to get tough, and to get rid of steroids now.

Now here he is on Baltimore Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who was suspended today after testing positive for steroids:

"Rafael Palmeiro is a friend. He testified in public and I believe him," Bush said, referring to Palmeiro's denials under oath to a congressional committee on March 17. "He's the kind of person that's going to stand up in front of the klieg lights and say he didn't use steroids, and I believe him. Still do."

It's like listening to a small child. He doesn't want to believe it, so it isn't true. This is the man currently running our country.

Kevin Drum 12:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 1, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DROPPING THE BOMB....Richard Frank has an interesting cover story in the current issue of the Weekly Standard titled "Why Truman Dropped the Bomb." He contrasts two competing theories about why Truman decided to use atomic bombs against Japan in August 1945:

In 1945, an overwhelming majority of Americans regarded as a matter of course that the United States had used atomic bombs to end the Pacific war. They further believed that those bombs had actually ended the war and saved countless lives. This set of beliefs is now sometimes labeled by academic historians the "traditionalist" view.

....But in the 1960s, what were previously modest and scattered challenges of the decision to use the bombs began to crystallize into a rival canon....The critics share three fundamental premises. The first is that Japan's situation in 1945 was catastrophically hopeless. The second is that Japan's leaders recognized that fact and were seeking to surrender in the summer of 1945. The third is that thanks to decoded Japanese diplomatic messages, American leaders knew that Japan was about to surrender when they unleashed needless nuclear devastation.

Using evidence from top secret "Magic" intelligence summaries declassified in their entirety in 1995 Franks makes the case that the traditionalist view has turned out to be the correct one. He argues persuasively that the intelligence intercepts make it clear that Japan wasn't ready to surrender on terms acceptable to the Allies and that the Japanese military was fully ready to fight to the bloody end against an expected American invasion of the Japanese home islands.

The article is well worth reading, even though I've always considered this an odd debate. It's certainly possible to take either side of the moral argument for using atomic weapons, but on the question of whether or not Japan was prepared to fight to the end, one piece of evidence has always struck me as conclusive: the fact that we had to drop two bombs. If Japan had really been prepared to give up on terms close to unconditional surrender which, for better or worse, was what the Allies demanded surely the demonstration of American power at Hiroshima would have been more than enough to tip them over? The fact that there was still debate within the inner cabinet even after Hiroshima makes it seem vanishingly unlikely that there was anything resembling a consensus for surrender before that. In fact, Frank suggests it was even worse than that:

Japanese historians uncovered another key element of the story. After Hiroshima (August 6), Soviet entry into the war against Japan (August 8), and Nagasaki (August 9), the emperor intervened to break a deadlock within the government and decide that Japan must surrender in the early hours of August 10. The Japanese Foreign Ministry dispatched a message to the United States that day stating that Japan would accept the Potsdam Declaration, "with the understanding that the said declaration does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler." This was not, as critics later asserted, merely a humble request that the emperor retain a modest figurehead role. As Japanese historians writing decades after the war emphasized, the demand that there be no compromise of the "prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler" as a precondition for the surrender was a demand that the United States grant the emperor veto power over occupation reforms and continue the rule of the old order in Japan....The maneuver further underscores the fact that right to the very end, the Japanese pursued twin goals: not only the preservation of the imperial system, but also preservation of the old order in Japan that had launched a war of aggression that killed 17 million.

Fascinating stuff. Read the whole thing.

Kevin Drum 10:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH v. CHOICE....This is kind of a weird coincidence. At the breakout session I attended at BlogHer, several of the women were complaining about the lack of blogospheric presence from groups like NOW and NARAL. When I asked if NARAL even had a blog, someone told me they didn't.

Well, they do. It's called Bush v. Choice, and according to their archives it's been around since July 2004. The weird coincidence part of this story is that on the very day their name was being taken in vain at BlogHer, the reality is that they were celebrating the unveiling of a fancy new design by inviting some of the leading lights of the blogosphere to be guest posters. I don't know if this is a temporary thing or if these folks will be guest blogging on a long term basis, but if you bookmark the site and go back on a daily basis I guess you'll find out.

Anyway, I just thought I'd point this out. If a dozen bloggers at a "Politics and Feminism" breakout session at BlogHer didn't know that NARAL has a blog, lots of other people probably don't know it either. But now you do.

Via Amanda, who's one of the guest bloggers.

Kevin Drum 10:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE UNWANTED MAN....Dan Drezner on John Bolton's recess appointment as ambassador to the UN:

My views on Bolton remain unchanged -- from the Bush administration's perspective, this is an unwanted man being sent to an unwanted institution.

OK, I guess I can buy that. I gather that Dan's point is that since the Bush administration loathes the UN anyway, it hardly matters who they send there. And at least this appointment gets Bolton far, far away from a job with real influence.

So there's your silver lining for the day.

UPDATE: As long as we're on the subject, though, the Mock Turtle reminds us that the holdup on Bolton's nomination was the fault of Bush, not Senate Democrats:

It is not that Bolton was denied an up-or-down vote as Bush is claiming. On the contrary, his up-or-down vote was waiting only for the release of the full documents from the White House that were needed so that the Senate could make that vote. Once the Senate had those documents the vote would have gone ahead.

Bolton had not yet been confirmed because of the White House's actions, not because of the Senate's. It was the White House that was stalling, not the Senate. And let's be equally clear on why George Bush made a recess appointment. It was so he could avoid releasing the requested documents.

So what was in those documents, anyway? They've sure gone to a lot of effort to keep them secret.

Kevin Drum 6:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NOVAK COMES OUT FROM HIDING....Robert Novak has a column today in which he defends himself against charges that he outed Valerie Plame's name even though the CIA asked him not to:

I have previously said that I never would have written those sentences if Harlow, then-CIA Director George Tenet or anybody else from the agency had told me that Valerie Plame Wilson's disclosure would endanger herself or anybody.

Fine. Whatever. Who cares?

Novak cares, of course, because it's his reputation on the line. But for the rest of us, this is just misdirection. In the end, it doesn't matter whether or not Novak was carrying water for the Bush administration. It doesn't matter whether Joe Wilson is a brave public servant or a preening popinjay. It doesn't matter what the motives of Karl Rove & Co. were.

All that matters is whether the White House knew or should have known that Valerie Plame was a covert agent, and whether or not they spoke about her CIA role to reporters. The rest of this stuff is interesting in a titillating, Jacko kind of way, but ultimately it's just a diversion. Let's not allow the wingers to distract us from the only point that really does matter.

Kevin Drum 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BLOG COMMUNITIES....An email exchange with Prof B last night has prompted an additional thought about the BlogHer conference that I want to share. It's something I alluded to in my initial wrapup post, but much too ambiguously.

Here it is. I mentioned that I was a little surprised that the vast majority of the attendees weren't primarily interested in political blogging even if you define "political" fairly broadly. What's more, after looking in on which sessions drew the biggest crowds, I'd say that if you define it as the kind of wonkish political blogging you see here, or at Suburban Guerrilla or TalkLeft, only about 10-20% of the attendees considered themselves political bloggers. Mostly they were there for other stuff.

By itself, though, that's not what struck me. After all, political blogs are only a tiny fraction of all blogs, even if they're the ones that get the bulk of the attention from the mainstream media. No, what struck me wasn't the mere existence of all these nonpolitical bloggers, but the fact that several hundred of them were willing to pay a fair amount money to fly in from around the country to meet other likeminded bloggers.

In retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised, of course. My world is institutional politics, and I'm accustomed to the idea that political wonks fly all over the place organizing themselves and going to conferences. But of course everyone else does the same thing. My wife flies to Huntsville for a week every year to meet up with her sewing buddies at the Martha Pullen School and then takes off another week for the annual SAGA convention. In fact, she spends a lot more time going to conventions and classes and whatnot for her hobby than I do for mine.

So when I half-jokingly noted that "there's a definite business opportunity here," I guess I wasn't even half joking. There's a definite opportunity there whether it's "business" or otherwise. The political blogosphere may be one of the loudest and best organized of the blog communities, but that doesn't mean it's where all the action is. Other blog communities are out there just waiting to be organized, all happily willing to pay money for the chance to get together with likeminded bloggers.

Politics is my thing, so I won't be doing any of this organizing. But I'll bet other people will be doing it before long. BlogHer is only the start.

And now a prediction: next year BlogHer will draw over a thousand attendees. You read it here first.

Kevin Drum 2:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

REVIVING THE IRS....One of the great scams of the 90s was the Roth Hearings, a brilliant piece of performance art staged by Senator William Roth as an attack on the Internal Revenue Service. The hearings were deliberately dramatic: Roth held them in a committee room designed to block electronic eavesdropping and had guards search everyone before they entered the chamber. IRS employees called as witnesses were blocked by black curtains and had their voices electronically altered, like mobsters afraid of being murdered in their sleep.

The testimony was equally dramatic: IRS agents, they said, routinely made false accusations against people, busted into people's homes and waved guns in their faces, and once even forced a girl caught in a raid to change her clothes while agents watched.

As it happens, virtually none of this was true, but that didn't matter. Republicans lined up to denounce the IRS as "Gestapo-like" and a law was quickly passed that handcuffed agents and slashed the budget for audits and enforcement, especially against high-income taxpayers. It was a boon for the rich in the same way that it would be a boon for drug dealers and street criminals if Congress slashed the budgets of local police departments.

Today the Wall Street Journal reports that the high times are slowly coming to an end. Continuing a trend started belatedly by his predecessor, IRS Commissioner Mark Everson is cracking down:

Last year the IRS audited nearly 200,000 high earners (people earning $100,000 or more a year), double the number audited four years earlier. Since 2004, the IRS has collected nearly $4 billion under a settlement initiative that required the full payment of taxes plus penalties. All told, collections from increased enforcement measures rose 15% last year to a record $43.1 billion from the year before.

....Mr. Everson's tougher position reflects concern about the widening tax gap -- the difference between the taxes owed by corporations and individuals and the actual amounts collected. The gap was nearly $353 billion in 2001, the last year it was calculated. That is more than twice the amount in 1981 and three times the amount in 1973, calculated in 2001 dollars.

This is good news. The Roth Hearings were little more than hocus pocus designed to allow the rich to evade tax laws by the simple expedient of making tax laws impossible to enforce. It's about time to let them know they're expected to obey the same laws as the rest of us.

Kevin Drum 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE CURSE OF QUOTES....You say you want some press bashing? Fine. Try reading today's New York Times story about the adoption of a Bible study course in a Texas school district. It's a virtual showcase of the worst that journalism has to offer.

The basic gist is that the Odessa school district has decided to offer a supposedly nonsectarian Bible course designed by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. A "growing chorus of critics," however, say that's a crock and the course is really designed to indoctrinate students in conservative Christian theology.

Unfortunately, that's pretty much all the story has to offer: quote after quote after endless quote from people saying the course is either a fine addition to the curriculum or else a horrible infringement of the First Amendment. In a 1,300 word article, a dozen separate sources are quoted either directly or indirectly. It's a terrific job of "reporting."

But what's actually in the curriculum? We barely get a clue. Out of 30 paragraphs, there are exactly five that include factual statements about what the curriculum contains and even those are based on quotes from other people, not from either of the reporters examining the curriculum itself and offering excerpts.

So in the end, what we learn is that a bunch of people are pissed off. And that's about it. But there are lots of quotes. Quotes by the carload. Somebody call the Pulitzer committee.

POSTSCRIPT: Can you tell I'm in a cranky mood tonight?

Kevin Drum 1:19 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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