Saturday, May 28, 2011

With Friends Like Us....


The Pakistani government is quite unhappy with the behavior of the United States, their economic benefactor and sometimes ally in the war on - well, whatever it is we are fighting against.  The original understanding was we were in South Asia to disrupt and destroy organizations, primarily al Queada, that had the intention and ability to mount mass casualty attacks against American civilians.  This has evolved into a war on any Muslim community or organization that might do something violent to someone somewhere for some reason that we'd really prefer not to analyze at this point.  

So in the course of this endlessly expanding conflict, we regularly bomb villages in Pakistan.  Now, for some reason that's never been satisfactorily explained to me, using airplanes without pilots to bomb civilians in  sovereign nations with whom we are not at war, even those we consider our putative allies, is perfectly OK.  Even when we would be the very first to proudly declare that it would NOT be OK for us to bomb Pakistani villages using airplanes WITH pilots.  Needless to say, many apparently unenlightened Pakistanis fail to understand this distinction either, and would in general strongly prefer if nobody was bombing them from any kind of airborne contraption.

Then, in something out of a Tom Cruise movie, an American CIA operative in Lahore, busily doing something secret and nefarious, drew his Glock and fired through the windshield of his car at two Pakistanis on a motorcycle.  When one of them ran (the other was down, dying) the American agent, Raymond Davis, chased him down and shot him dead too.  He called for an extraction team to get him clear before the authorities could show up, then began using his cell phone to take videos of the bodies and surroundings.  Despite desperately driving the wrong way on a Lahore thoroughfare, killing another motorcyclist in the process (honestly, do they have something against two - wheeled transportation?), the extraction team was unable to reach Davis and he was taken into custody.  As is well known, the US paid at least two and a half million dollars to the families of his victims in order to gain his release.  Once again, the Pakistani population was unhappy with the behavior of the Americans in their country, apparently preferring that Americans have their shootouts in exotic foreign lands on the big screen.

But the real-life Tom Cruise movie didn't end there.  Last month, a team of American special operations commandos raided a compound north of Islamabad, killing a comfortably-ensconced Osama bin Laden.  Of course, elements of the Pakistani government, intelligence services and military knew he was there, and were protecting him, so the Americans decided it would not be prudent to share their plans with them.  In more fastidious times, this is called an "act of war", but today is merely another way that the US demonstrates its commitment to it's friends and allies.  Of course, these events were just the high points, but the net result of Pakistan's ten year relationship with the US is massive public anti-American sentiment, an embarrassed military seeking ways to reassert their authority within their own borders, and a government looking at its options for a new international benefactor, and finding a willing investor in China.

All of which brings us to this week, and the visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Pakistan.  Against the background of increasing anti-American sentiment, and the Pakistani's newfound independence and demands that America respect her sovereignty, Ms. Clinton's role was to find a way to encourage or coerce Pakistan to continue to serve American needs and desires, even at the expense of their own.  So she presented the Pakistanis with a list of people living in Pakistan with whom the American government is unhappy, and demanded they be killed.  Now, I've been a house guest with reluctant hosts at times, and one of the first lessons is when they begin to perceptibly tire of your shenanigans and begin to seriously entertain the possibility of just throwing you and your possessions out on the sidewalk, one of the very first things you do NOT do is demand they poison the fishtank and blow up the den.  It just tends not to be the 'course correction' they are looking for.

One of the larger shortcomings of American foreign policy is the relentless, unqualified insistence that other nations shape their policy to primarily serve American interests.  This process inevitably results in bad outcomes - either the nation attempts to do so, at a significant cost to their standing and credibility both in their region and with their own people, or they refuse to do as demanded and finds themselves on the receiving end of economic and political isolation and even sanctions.  America is often like a bully who moves into a neighborhood and offers you a bag of marbles to play with him, but if you later go across the street to play with Billy he beats you up.  One wonders if the rest of the world will watch the way the strategic relationship between the US and Pakistan has played out, and when Washington comes calling after the next global crisis, those nations might just decide to seek another, more mutually beneficial alliance.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Thinking About Thinking About Stuff

One of the things that is most repellent about the Republican Party in their role as the political wing of the American Political Right is a widespread and repeated tendency to adopt extreme and radical tactics in order to advance their agenda, even if the country would benefit if they did otherwise, and then decry those same extreme tactics when used against them.  Or, of course, the process also works in reverse - a paroxysm of outrage over a tactic that they will immediately adopt when the opportunity presents itself (google 'demon pass' for an example).

Now, somewhere at the most structural level of my political worldview is one very simple organizing principle, a foundational belief stated in the negative in recognition of its profound clarity: I do not want to be like them.  Ever.  In any way.  Full stop.

Now, a few years ago, when the worst American President of all time, George W. Bush was nominating a foul collection of hacks, apparatchiks, party functionaries and wild-eyed true believers to key positions in government, foreign service and the judiciary, I believed, and often stated, that the Democrats in the Senate were doing their jobs, indeed, serving their nation and their constituency, but slowing and often blocking these Presidential appointments.  And when they refused to allow the Senate to adjourn in order to prevent Bush from using the Recess Appointments mechanism to put these people in these often powerful and consequential positions, I cheered.  I smiled and watched them send a local Senator in every morning to gavel the Senate into session, even though there was no one else there, and I felt a frisson of schaudenfreude when I thought about how frustrated Bush and Cheney must be by this mere parliamentary tactic.

So one could not be surprised, not really, when the Republicans objected to the call for adjournment this afternoon.  They believe, and not without some fairly valid reasons, that the Obama White House might take advantage of the spring recess to appoint Elizabeth Warren to head the CFPB.  The Senate will stay in pro forma session and, as it will not be in recess, there can be no recess appointments.

So here's the thing.  I LIKE Elizabeth Warren.  I think she's the ideal head of the CFPB, and I think an effective, functional agency like the CFPB is both good for consumers and good for the economy.  Much of the worst excesses of the housing bubble would have been subject to oversight by a consumer watchdog agency, and as such, most of the worst of the sub prime mortgages might not have been written at all.  No one can say for sure, but that is the intent of the Dodd Frank legislation that created the agency in the first place.

So my first instinct is to be annoyed by this action, as it clearly steps on the prerogatives of a duly elected executive branch.  And hey, it's not like the Republicans in Congress have been playing it at all straight when it comes to their "Advise and Consent" constitutional role.  They should NOT be allowed to get away with it!

But no.  If I didn't feel like that when the Democrats did it just a couple years ago, to feel that way now would be disingenuous in the extreme.  The media likes to use the term 'partisan' as a pejorative, something to be avoided whenever possible, something toxic to discourse and disruptive of political solutions to pressing problems.  But that isn't right.  Partisanship is inherent in a multi-party political system - there HAS to be some philosophical or ideological differences between the parties or these would only be one.  Partisanship is the political equivalent of the adversarial system in justice.  It causes groups of people with different political agendas to find a way to work together to make sure that problems are solved and the constituencies are provided for.  But it would certainly be a toxic form of partisanship if I supported a tactic when one side exercised it and was outraged when the other side did precisely the same thing.  That would be acting a Republican.

So gavel away, Mr. Minority Leader, even while Ms. Warren must wait for another time.  And when she is elevated to the CFPB leadership by recess appointment some time in the future, I'll remember the genuine offense I took to the appointment of John Bolton to the United Nations post and I'll try to work up some authentic outrage.  Because I don't want to be like them...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Israel and the US - Realizing the Possible

There's a lot to be said about Israel and the US, about Netanyahu and Obama.  But a lot of that tends to wander off into the weeds.  Before even beginning the discussion, there are two key points to keep uppermost in mind.  First, both Netanyahu and Obama are first and foremost professional politicians.  That is, they became the political leadership of their respective nations by winning democratic elections, and whatever intentions they have for retaining those leadership positions are dependent upon maintaining a functional majority within their constituencies.  The second thing to remember is that the relationship is premised, at it's very core, on a set of asymmetries that control and define it.  And the primary asymmetry is that Obama has NO ability to influence Israeli policy, but through the efforts of the lobbies, primarily AIPAC, Netanyahu has the ability to directly affect American policy through the US Congress.

The entire basis for the relationship, and any rough patches it may hit, is rooted in this key asymmetry.  Since Obama cannot influence Israeli policy, his only option for trying to effect events in the Middle East is through American policy.   But he lacks the ability to make changes in American policy without both being thwarted by Congress and putting his political coalition, and thus his chances for re-election, at risk.  Of course, it is also true that Netanyahu is rigidly constrained by his political coalition, which drives him to take the very actions that create friction with the United States, but unlike Obama, it is not clear that, given broad political freedom of action, he would do anything substantially different.

*     *     *

It's ultimately easy to see how Likud's maximalist position on negotiations is inevitably destructive to Israel.  A first-grader could clearly understand that the only alternative to a two-state solution is a one-state solution.  It's really no more complicated than that.  And in a one state solution, either Israel grants citizenship to the Palestinians, ultimately becoming Palestine itself through the inexorable combination of demographics and politics, or Israel does NOT grant citizenship to her non Jewish residents, resulting in a de facto apartheid state that will be an international pariah, subject to increasing international political and economic pressure until the apartheid state collapses, resulting in Israel becoming Palestine.

This, more than anything else, is what informs us that Netanyahu will continue to espouse a hard line on the West Bank and Gaza, continuing settlement expansion while threatening and occasionally attacking his neighbors in the region.  No matter what he truly believes, he knows that any other course will break up his coalition and thus he would lose his position of power.  So, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, it is pointless to try to encourage or even coerce Israel to change their policies.  It would require an act of political suicide, and if we know anything about Bibi, it's that he's a survivor.  So, since the question is no longer "What should Israel do?" (if it ever really was), and the Palestinians seem to have settled on their own course of action (unilateral declaration of a Palestinian State), the only remaining variable is what the United States will do.

Prior to the 2012 elections, we can expect the Obama administration to toe the line on Mid-East policy, hewing closely to the goals and desires of the Likudniks in power and their proxies in the Congress.  As long as the calculation is that a hard line against the Palestinian cause results in the best political outcome in American national elections, the Israeli leadership can expect unlimited and unquestioning support from Washington DC.  The more interesting question is what happens AFTER the election.

The US will explicitly veto Palestinian statehood in the UNSC in September, and as time goes by world opinion of Israel and the brutal mis-treatment of a stateless, powerless Palestinian people will increasingly harden.  By the time he is elected to a second term, Obama will be the only real ally Israel has left, in a region still reeling from the political changes brought about by the 'Arab Spring'.  With his second Presidential term, Obama's political career will be at an end and he will be considering his legacy.  Meanwhile, global opprobrium for Israel will be higher, and international political pressure for some kind of justice for the Palestinian people will be at its peak.  The newly democratic Arab nations, along with those old despots who only survived by realizing they have a responsibility to their people, will find common cause in demanding an end to the occupation.

The Israeli occupation is obviously unstable, and unsustainable.  The Palestinians WILL have a homeland at some point, either alongside a Jewish Israel or replacing it.  While it would make sense to reach an equitable solution sooner rather than later, political realities lead us to the conclusion that the best case is the status quo begins to change in 2013.  And it certainly could be longer.  But the balance of power is inexorably shifting, and the political and economic realities in play all mitigate against unfettered American and Israeli power.  The calendar is the only ally the Palestinians really need.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Head On Collision With Reality

One of the irrefutable measures of the viability of a political movement is whether it falls within the political and economic belief system of the constituency in question.  We judge a movement as "radical" when its support is limited to those most committed to that ideology, while the vast majority of less politically invested voters are not merely disinterested, but openly hostile to that movement.  This is the primary reason that even opposing political movements have traditionally had narrow, technical differences, and while goals can vary widely, implementation tends to follow a well-rutted path.   When a movement seeks to implement its agenda in a manner that falls outside of the regular experiences and expectations of the vast majority of voters, it is by definition a fringe or radical movement, and will seldom register in the national political conversation.

It would be an exception, of course, if that radical or fringe program were to become the primary plank of one of the two mainstream American political parties, one that they explicitly supported and, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, insisted that it was the only reasonable response to an existential threat.  Which brings us to Paul Ryan, and the special congressional election in New York's 26th district.

As I'm sure you've read by now, NY26 is a longstanding safe Republican congressional district in upstate New York.  The seat became prematurely vacant when Republican incumbent Chris Lee succumbed to the overpowering horniness of his own unique mid-life crisis, was exposed on Gawker, and resigned.  A special election was scheduled for May 24th.  Now, this was going to be just another pro-forma exercise in safe/gerrymandered district politics, but two things happened.  First, the Republican candidate, Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, expected to be a shoo-in for the Congressional seat, was challenged on the right by Tea Party Wackadoodle Jack Davis, along with the duly expected Democratic cannon fodder Kathy Hochul.  And even as Davis pulled the far right votes away from Corwin, the campaigns were running pretty much as expected - until Paul Ryan forced the US House of Representatives to vote on a budget that eliminated Medicare for Americans under 55 years old.  Support for that budget became a Republican litmus test, and Jane Corwin embraced it with open arms.  And lost significant amounts of support.  Today, on the eve of the election, polling shows both Corwin and Davis losing support to Hochul, who appears poised to win an historic victory.

Of course, anything can happen tomorrow, and Jane Corwin could still win the election.  But even so, we can at this point take away two key lessons, lessons that will provide the framework for the debates around the 2012 General election.  The first, and truly obvious lesson, is that a political agenda that is unpopular among it's constituency is doomed to fail.  Sure, this seems obvious, but the young lunatics of the far right fringe that has taken control of the Republican Party were congenitally unable to discern the difference between votes for them and votes for their agenda.  They repeatedly operated from the assumption that their election to the House of Representatives represented a mandate to implement their entire agenda, regardless of popular political risks associated with its more plutocratic policies.  So they attacked labor, working people and their unions, in an attempt to help businesses become more profitable.  And it was genuinely hard for them to understand that some of their strongest supporters would react negatively to a policy that hurt them and their families.   Then came the Ryan budget plan.  As the press worshiped it for being "courageous" and "serious", the House Republicans grew emboldened, as the plan was highly popular in the hermetically sealed environment in which they lived and worked.  So they convinced themselves that the popularity of Medicare among seniors was strictly a matter of narrow self-interest, and all but six of them voted for a budget that preserved Medicare for those over 55, and privatized it for all others.  Now, of course, the Republican Party, from Jane Corwin to Newt Gingrich, has realized that Medicare is a third rail that is politically suicidal to touch - a lesson, oddly, they understood clearly in their fight against Obama's health care reform legislation.  Of course, as the Republicans frantically try to walk back their support for the elimination of Medicare, they struggle with the fact that no less than 235 of them voted for the Ryan budget when it passed the House.

The second lesson is more nuanced, and will take longer to have an effect, but it may turn out to be critically important in American politics in the future.  This lesson has less to do with a political or ideological agenda and more to do with its implementation.  You see, the Republican agenda is straightforward - Lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations, less regulation on businesses, higher profits through lower wages, fewer benefits and fewer government services - but when expressed in unambiguous terms is unpopular.  So for the last few decades, Republican politicians have addressed this rather significant shortcoming by lying.  The thing that made this tactic successful was their broad success at co-opting the media, so that there was no credible or respected outlet that would challenge their narrative, no matter how absurd it became.

So here, for the first time, we see this approach fail.  Certainly the Republicans became so collectively delusional that they massively over-reached, but however it came to pass, the lies they told about the implementation and effects of their agenda are exposed, and they are being forced to walk back the inarguably untrue statements they made in the budget debate.  Now, much of their distasteful agenda remains concealed behind their claims that the US budget deficit is an immediate and existential threat to everything we love and believe, and that everything - short of raising revenue, which would, they say, also destroy the economy - and anything must be done to reduce that deficit NOW!  This position falls apart whenever it is examined, but a lot of Americans have been willing to believe it without question.  Which allowed the Republicans to move their real agenda forward.  But now their lies have been exposed on a budget matter.  Now we are seeing cracks in the dam - if it is ok to question their honesty and credibility on budget matters, it becomes that much more acceptable to hold their other claims up to genuine examination.

This may be the key lesson going into the political silly season leading up to November 2012.  It may be that the parties, and their candidates, will be held to some kind of standard of truth telling.  It may be that reporters, pundits and even moderators challenge the most bald faced of lies, demand evidence to support claims and ask for examples of actual events in response to generalized smears.  It may not only be bits of our meager social safety net that are preserved, but some important parts of our political system also.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

State of Confusion

The American Political Right is noteworthy for, among other things, a single-minded, obsessive focus on a particular set of issues and ideological positions.  Their entire political constituency has a virtually homogeneous set of political beliefs, a single unified ideology that can be expressed in a series of brief 'bumper stickers' that simultaneously define a position and eliminate any and all nuance from the issue.  They wield their political beliefs as a blunt instrument, and it is universally accepted by American Conservatives that there is one right answer to any political or philosophical question.  From abortion to climate change to energy and tax policy, there is much less variation from issue to issue on the Right than there could ever possibly be on the left.  It is fortunate that this kind of narrow world view, one that doesn't only refuse to tolerate dissent, but enforces its internal orthodoxy with a brutally exclusionary process, is necessarily self-limiting, ensuring that a political belief system rigidly enforced by it's own most radical adherents will never appeal to a large enough constituency to actually hold unfettered power.

But it is often noted that the overarching narrative that drives these specific issue positions, the single great organizing principle of the American Political Right is that of 'small governement'.  Indeed, there is no set of beliefs about the purpose of government, other than it's management of the monopoly on the use of violent coercion, so there is no sense of just precisely how small government should be - only that in any and all cases, it should be smaller.  This belief is predicated on an economic philosophy of radical free-market capitalism, where private enterprise and property ownership should, in every case, be out of reach of any government control or manipulation.  Now, obviously, there is a massive inherent hypocrisy in this worldview, as those who espouse it have no problem calling for the government to outlaw, limit and punish anything they do not believe should be permitted, from abortion to homosexuality.

But as we have learned over the last decade, hypocrisy is never a disqualifier, and indeed carries with it no consequences or sanction.  But there is a larger question contained within this 'small government' dogma, one I have never seen questioned and one I genuinely don't understand.  All these demands for lesser government regulation, increasingly limited government participation in the community and, as a necessary outcome, less government demands for tax revenue to support its interventions in the lives and livelihoods of Americans, without exception speak to the Federal government.  It is an article of faith, going back to the civil war and the civil rights debates of the fifties and sixties, that these decisions, and, must go the unspoken corollary, these government interventions and attendant taxation, are the domain of the States, and not any greater collective federal government or agency.

Well, OK then.  But here's where I'm left confused.  How is the one, in any functional or operational manner, really any different from the other?  If I send less money to Washington and more to Sacramento, this somehow results in greater liberty?  If Federal legislators decline to pass laws that constrain my right to a gun or an abortion or a marriage, but State legislators do so enthusiastically, how is that constraint any better?  The argument I can come up with is that this patchwork approach would result in various regional enclaves where one could choose to live that would more closely align legal and economic policy with constituent's ideology.  Eventually, I suppose, enforced by some kind of selective 'migration' policy that would prevent people with different political ideas and beliefs from coming in and "disrupting" the community.

It seems to me that, in today's highly tribal, often bigoted and extremely polarized political environment, a genuine hands off, 'leave it to the states' policy would remarkably quickly lead to the complete dissolution of what we in modern times think of as America. It would be some sort of very loose affiliation of shifting regional alliances, a 'No-Longer-United' States of America, and that the liberal tendencies of the educated and creative classes would lead to the severe economic decline of the more right wing regions.  It's so clearly an unworkable arrangement that there is no real possibility of it ever coming to pass, but that doesn't provide a satisfactory answer to the larger question.  Why is one government's intervention welcome, while another is anathema?  How are they different, and how is one more democratic?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ron Paul, the Civil Rights Act and the Social Value of Libertarianism

Ron Paul, like his son, says he would have voted against the Civil Rights Act.  Unlike his son, he doesn't hide, duck or dissemble.  Part of the thing that otherwise sane people sometimes find attractive about Ron Paul is he is not only honest in his political ideology, he is fearless in its expression.  Unlike almost every other sitting legislator or high government official, if you ask him a question he will answer it.  That is, the actual question that was asked, rather than the accepted procedure of answering a politically difficult question with an irrelevant talking point, as in "Senator, do you think large corporations should be able to avoid paying corporate income taxes?"  "I believe that the most important challenge facing our Nation is job creation, and I will work tirelessly to make certain that is our focus".

But not Ron Paul.  To assist him in this endeavor, he has a well-formed and highly developed political and economic philosophy, an 'all in' form of savage Randian Libertarianism.  This particularly virulent ideology is best suited for know-it-all post adolescents, but in some cases people retain it into adulthood, at least as long as they can ignore its contradictions and logical outcome.  In Paul's case, his opposition to the Civil Rights act, he says, is not rooted in racism but rather in the belief that government should not be allowed to make laws about how people utilize their own private property.

To be sure, the Civil Rights Act is a massive intrusion into private commerce.  You might own a hotel or a restaurant, but the government mandates that there are criteria upon which you cannot deny service, no matter how deeply you might wish to.  But segregation is a massive societal problem, and no matter how highly one might value laissez-faire capitalism, the markets were utterly unable to overcome the deeply ingrained social taboos and solve the problem.  It took the coercive power of the government, enforced by judicial fiat and in many cases men at arms, to correct this societal wrong.

Now, we know from his own writings that Ron Paul is a virulent racist.  But let's take him at his word that his objections to the Civil Rights Act, along with other government contributions to the nation's well-being, is authentically rooted in his ideological belief that individual rights and the free market trump any efforts by society to actively solve its own problems.  This forces us to confront perhaps the most ridiculously toxic result of actually implementing a Libertarian political and economic system.  That is, under this set of beliefs, you MUST blindly follow the constitution, even when doing so is overtly harmful to the people and their communities.  If something is deemed 'unconstitutional' in the sense that the constitution does not expressly allow it, then it is not to be considered, regardless of the cost.  This turns the concept of 'constitutionality' on its head - instead of something being unconstitutional because the constitution forbids it, in the Ron Paul worldview EVERYTHING is unconstitutional with the exception of only those things that are allowed.  In this system, there are no options for dealing with problems or emergencies.  Not only can the government not address large-scale injustices like segregation, but it cannot address emergencies like hurricanes and flooding, it cannot attempt to alleviate poverty or even educate the children.

It seems that it is a political philosophy that sticks to its most basic premises out of spite - a system of governance that by definition is unconcerned with the well being of the governed.  That would stand idly by in the face of great suffering merely to remain true to a rigid set of governing principles.  And a government that would do so has no legitimacy, no right to claim the power of governance, however disinterested, over a helpless and powerless population.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

People Power, Political Power, Fire Power and the Balance of Power in a Connected World

First there was Tunisia, with the people demanding change and the ancient, creaking government pushing back.  Then came Egypt, with it's restive, hungry youth wondering what their lives might look like, and a sclerotic old dictator who never had a chance to understand the new order - he was gone before he could slaughter his people, once again, into submission.  Now there's a referendum, a re-written constitution and elections coming, but inexorably the old political order moves in to take the reigns of power once again.  The ridiculous, hated "emergency" laws will be history, but the same grinding, desultory economic reality will continue to take it's historic toll.

In Yemen and Syria, regimes fighting for their lives and livelihoods, but peering over the time horizon is the status quo, in a different guise, but the same, all the same.  In Saudi and Iran, the power of the state called out to crush their own people's cry for a voice, for a chance, for a future.  And in Bahrain, an oppressed and mal-treated majority rises up, and a wealthy, sclerotic monarchy reaches out to their sectarian brothers for the raw firepower necessary for them to retain their increasingly illegitimate power. For them, like so many historical autocrats, the end game is nothing but increasing violence, and people increasingly willing to sacrifice for a chance for their children.  So many lessons, so poorly learned.

It's all happening in a small geographic region, but it's a diverse region, and what's happening in these countries from North Africa to the Persian Gulf has many reasons, a hundred fathers and a thousand flashpoints.  It's difficult to learn a lesson that is anything more than an ephemeral, passing explanation, a mere case-by-case analysis.  But here's what we HAVE to learn - the one data point that can draw a line across the calendar, from police state to government made legitimate by its own people.

The question is simply this: Can democracy be born in violence?  And the alternate option, can a people's demand for democracy be ended by violence?  Historically, the answer to the first was a resounding, unequivocal yes.  People could, and repeatedly have thrown off autocratic governance, even monarchy, in the name of self determination and a viable political process.  The rule of law, not of men, came into being only when the people demanded it, and were willing not only to fight for it, but to die in whatever numbers it took.  Certainly there are also historical examples of a regime being willing to use sufficient violence to crush dissent and cement their political power for another generation.  But like so many other things, the rapid evolution of digital communication technology has changed these calculations, and for now, unsure of how the various dynamics play out, we watch, transfixed, as people fight for a voice in their own future, and the regimes that profit from their oppression, with no valid justification for their continued rule, fight only to intimidate, to raise the cost of rebellion until it exceeds that of the status quo.

As we watch the old line, those made wealthy and powerful by the previous regime maneuver against the politically naive people in Tunisia, we realize how hard it actually is to win a modern revolution.  In Egypt, the power has always, ultimately, belonged to the military, and it remains to be seen just what sort of representative government they might allow.  In Libya, a stalemate, leaving open the question of the efficacy of unfettered violence and brutality as a method for the preservation of power.  And all around the region, the people bleed, not only blood and viscera, but hope itself as they come to realize the size and strength of the roadblocks to real change, and as they come, every day, to understand a little more clearly how alone they are, and how hopeless is their quest.

There is, within me, a real sense of anger and helplessness.  First, at the brutal, self serving regimes, who have forgotten, if they ever knew at all, that the role of a nation's leadership is to serve, protect and improve the lives of their population.   But then, in rapid succession at the rest of the world.  What is our role?  What responsibility do we collectively bear?  It so often seems that everyone involved in the process has some kind agenda, that it's all about positioning, finding a seat at the table when the gunfire stops, or at least subsides.  Commodities, trade routes, manufacturing hubs, cheap labor, timber - the only thing that seems to be left out of the calculation is the desperate hopes and aspirations of a population so hopeless that they believe their best future is to face down tanks unarmed.

In Libya, the world at least tries to make it a fight and not a slaughter.  In Iran and Syria, the world shrugs it's collective shoulders as the slaughter is brief, information scarce and media coverage non-existent.  In Egypt, the people may have made significant political progress, but that doesn't stop the basic tribal stupidity of religion from ending whatever unity the Egyptian people might have found in Tahrir Square.

And even as we watch these people, along with their dreams, die hard and slow on Democracy's altar, we ourselves turn away without a word as our Democracy unravels into some kind of Capitalist Security State, built in the name of greed, fear, hatred and bigotry and structured to serve only the wealthy and powerful.  Is it sadder to watch people fight and die for a chance at what we have, or to watch us give it all up, unwilling to even raise our voices in protest?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The bin Laden Wrap-Up -- Just Another Paragraph in a History Textbook

Christ.  What is it with us?  Is there anything, any single thing anymore that we won't argue over, accuse each other with indignation and outrage, tug at the threads and rumors in some attempt to prove something we already believe and have lost all willingness to re-examine?  It long ago became stupid and inane, and has now become pathological.  So of course, I want to offer my two cents on all matters bin Laden.

The Photos:
Of course you don't release the photos.  Why would you?  What could it possibly accomplish?  If the American leadership is convinced he's dead, then he's DEAD.  Why would they feel some need to prove it?  If there are people who choose to believe he's not really dead, why would photos published by the very same agencies who claimed to take his life in the first place convince them?  All that would be accomplished is that the world would have another reason to talk about America's violence and brutality, as his bullet shattered skull and lifeless eyes became the latest iconic image of a courageous anti-imperialist Muslim martyr.  Similarly, the burial at sea was a wise decision.  With no remains, there remains nothing to fight some endless ideological tug of war over, nothing to hold up as an example of, well, anything.  Once he was confirmed KIA, there was nothing left to fear from him except narrative, so anything that silences that narrative can only be considered positive.

He was executed without due process:
Ok, if you want to take this position, you need to consider what you're really arguing for, or against.  The attack on bin Laden was a military operation, conducted on foreign soil with the very real concern that elements of that host government were assisting him in avoiding capture.  The military operates with a different set of imperatives than law enforcement - law enforcement takes people into custody and confiscates their stuff, the military kills people and breaks their stuff.  So if you truly believe that a serious effort should have been made to arrest, extradite and try bin Laden, then what you are actually saying is you do not believe he was a legitimate military target.  That the FBI, in coordination with State, should have made a formal request through Pakistani government channels to raid the compound and arrest those present.  

Now this can be a perfectly valid argument, and depending upon your views of what appropriate counter terror operations should look like, can be made with consistency and persuasiveness.  I, personally, believe it to be wrong.  It was in this case a method very likely doomed to fail, and although it is certainly true that practical considerations should not be the sole drivers in decisions like this, they must enter into the deliberations.  You have this chance to get the head of al Quaeda, how much are you willing to entrust that opportunity to the good intentions of the Pakistani government?  At the same time, Osama bin Laden is not a cypher.  We know who he is, we know what he is, and there is no argument or debate about the things he has done.  And while I have often argued that it is ludicrous to claim we are at war with a small, trans national group of ideologically driven criminals, that does not in any way preclude them from becoming a military target.  When they are attempting to launch large scale attacks, or even more so, when they have an established history of launching large scale attacks, they become a military target - there is no cohesive argument against attacking them.   But make no mistake - when you order a military attack, you are ordering people killed, not captured. 

And to second guess the people with the guns in the noise and chaos of a night raid is silly.  We'll never know the circumstances that caused that operator to open fire.  We'll never know what he saw, what people were doing, what the lighting was like, even if he knew who he was firing on.  But knowing everything we know about Osama bin Laden, his mindset, his ideology, his undeniable commitment to his cause, it's not in any way a shock that he might go for a gun, choosing to go down fighting rather than meekly surrender.  And while being the shooter who got bin Laden is without doubt a career enhancing outcome, being the shooter who got killed on the raid that got bin Laden is substantially less so.

It seems sometimes that after all the horrific and nefarious decisions the US has made in the decade since 9/11, from detention without due process to torture to warrantless wiretaps to outright aggressive invasions, there are a lot of Americans who have utterly lost faith.  To be sure, there are others who refuse to even consider that anything the US does might be illegal, or even morally wrong.  To my mind, both of these are the conclusions of people who have stopped considering events discretely, who have made up their minds before the events occurred and have lost whatever ability they might have had to consider each event on the merits and the available information as a result of partisan or ideological passions.  It is worthwhile to occasionally consider one's position on matters such as these, to try and determine if it is the result of information or preconceptions.

There are a number of voices being raised now, suggesting that with the demise of bin Laden we can quickly draw down our troop presence in Afghanistan.  My feelings are mixed.  Certainly, anything that can be used to try to encourage the American Political leadership to end that pointless, indefensible charnel house should be used.  It's been many years since anything even approximating a coherent argument for American troops fighting a local insurgency in support of a corrupt despot in a desperately poor nation on the other side of the planet could be made, and if it takes some random historical event to bring about the beginning of the end of that seemingly endless stupidity, I'm all for it.  But as a logical argument goes, it's pretty weak.

Afghanistan is not about al Quaeda.  If it was, that might be the framework for some kind of argument in support of some level of US military action.  But with the 9/11 attacks, al Quaeda was on the run.  In a matter of months, al Quaeda was gone from Afghanistan, indeed, had ceased to be an effective international terror organization.  It was no longer a reason for the American military presence in Afghanistan, it had become the excuse for that presence.  For years, al Quaeda has been in Pakistan, and the US has been engaged in fighting a loose affiliation of Islamists, Nationalists and Tribesmen who are variously opposed to the American occupation of their country and the Pashtun government of Hamid Karzai supported by the foreign occupation.  And since there is no argument to be made that an Afghanistan under a leadership that is hostile to American interests represents a threat to the US so great it requires a hundred thousand troops to combat it that is not simply idiotic and insane on its face, the threat from al Quaeda continues to be offered as the raison de guerre.  That being the case, to whatever extent the death of Osama bin Laden reduces the effectiveness of those ludicrous claims, there is certainly no reason NOT to invoke it again and again.  But in the interest of having a realistic understanding of the dynamics in play, we need to also recognize it as the specious claim it is.

This is an easy one.  Any argument in favor of torture is stupid, dangerous and embarrassing.  But this is also a cautionary tale about the kinds of arguments we want to use AGAINST torture.  Beware the practical argument.  For when we wail "torture doesn't work", we are leaving ourselves open to a disgraceful but logically consistent argument whenever it does "work".  And if we are to be honest, while torture will generate a great deal of false information as the hapless victims desperately searches for the information that will make his tormentors STOP, there will always be cases where that same detainee undergoing torture IS going to provide some important and heretofore unknown bit of intelligence.  Then where do we find ourselves?

No.  We do not torture because it is wrong, it violates our most deeply and strongly held beliefs about human rights and human dignity, and yes, we are willing to suffer whatever consequences come about from our refusal to engage in such inhuman and barbaric methods.  We can never be 100% safe, we cannot even describe what a 100% safe world might look like.  So as long as there will continue to be risk, I'm willing to accept the measure of that risk that results from my unwillingness to violate my own personal and societal values.  You tremble in fear and tell me "the Constitution is not a suicide pact"?  Fine.  I'll remind you there are worse things to be than dead.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Testimony of the Dead

Meh.  He sent some people to kill many of our people. In response, we sent some people to kill many of his people.  In the course of this proxy war people without investment in the fight died hard.  Drone strike countered by suicide bomber, armored divisions and night raids, and in every case, it was the innocent who died under the guns of the angry fighters.

One dood.  You can't kill an ideology, you can't blow up a belief system.  The leaders don't matter.  If they had killed General Petraeus, would the idea of America somehow die with him?   Of course not.

Of course, it HAD to happen.  Bin Laden was one of history's loose ends, the worst kind of dangling thread, an unredeemed outlaw to most, a hero to some, but here in America he was an itch we couldn't scratch.  As the years piled up and history moved on to other tragedies and other atrocities we talked about "getting" him, but he slowly grew into something more mythical than real, a dragon that appeared in fire and death and then went back to his cave, once again more concept than reality.  But the US couldn't have him walking around - no matter how many nations we occupied, no matter how many towns and villages we flattened, no matter how many lives we took, as long as bin Laden was breathing the same air we were ultimately impotent, a great power tormented by a single man.

And, of course, we knew all along where he was.  If not specifically, we knew he was in Pakistan, and we knew that our ally was, at some level, giving him shelter and protecting him.  And when we found him we knew better than to tell them, and we acted unilaterally, in complete secrecy, across borders.  And now, will they cry out in sovereign outrage, railing against America's arrogance and hypocrisy?  Or will they lower their eyes and speak carefully, in clear understanding that it was they who set the rules of this game, and that in the end it could not play out any other way?

After all the ink is spilled, pixels lit and commentary made, this morning is no different than yesterday.  al Quaeda remains a few hundred violent radicals bent on destruction in the name of some ambiguous set of goals that barely holds together to qualify as an ideology.  Their capabilities haven't changed, but neither has the litany of their unacknowledged but quite formidable accomplishments.  Single handedly they changed America's place in the world forever.  As we stand in our stocking feet at the airport, shoes in hand like some odd cultish supplicants, we feel the relentless tug of al Queada on our own historical narrative.  Before 9/11, the US had unquestioned power to demand and intimidate, and could do so from the moral high ground.  Today, we are just another bumbling power, on a par with the old Soviet empire, lashing out and destroying without any great overarching principle, reacting to events thoughtlessly, and constantly wondering how we lost our way.

bin Laden is dead.  That can in no way be construed as anything but an unconstrained good thing.  But we ought to remember him for what he did to us - that sad summer day of fire and fury was not the end of it, not by a long shot.  The reverberations from that single attack continue to echo down the paths of history, reminding us of honor and opportunities lost, of what we are and what we used to think we could be, of a more innocent time when we thought our role in the world was to build and create.

bin Laden is dead, and we will never be the same again...

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Bits N Pieces

Gaddhafi loses a son and some other family in a NATO attack.  I dunno - I'm finding it a little hard to work up any real sympathy for the crazy old bastard.  No matter what you think about the international intervention in the Libyan civil war, there is something satisfying in knowing that there is a price to be paid for raining misery and horror down upon the citizens of your nation, and that despots can't ALWAYS hide behind some sanctimoniously maximal definition of sovereignty to commit the worst sort of crimes.  Here's hoping he spends his remaining days in a cell in The Hague.

By far the more worrisome bit of news is that the fighting has spilled out of Libya and into Tunisia.  Remember, the great western fear, from Israel to Lebanon to Iraq to Iran is "regional destabilization", and there really isn't anything more effectively destabilizing than a shooting war.  If other nations in the region decide to get involved, it will not bode well for Gaddhafi's longevity, but in the longer term the list of potential good outcomes is substantially shorter than the list of poor ones.

Another authoritarian "President for Life" offers window dressing to his restive young population, only to find the rebellion growing all around him, leading to the inevitable "crackdown" using soldiers and tanks against unarmed demonstrators with the predictable stunning loss of life.  These things can go two ways, either the cost is too high and the rebellion fizzles (see Iran, Green Revolution) or the utter bleakness of the future drives the people to absorb the losses and stay in the streets, as an outcome that preserves the status quo is simply to grim to consider.

What will the international community do?  How much murder will they allow al - Assad to get away with?  How many defections of Baath party members, conscript troops and the intelligentsia will it take before they take more than the most innocuous of actions?  Syria is a regional odd duck, without oil but with great political and strategic importance, analogous to a so-called "swing voter".  And in an unusual case of strange bedfellows, both Iran and Israel will work every avenue to preserve the al - Assad dictatorship.  Squeezed between Israel, Iraq, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the one thing the region insists upon from Syria is a reliable stability enforced by a brutal police state.  Any radical political change there, whether Islamist or Democratic is viewed with fear and deep concern.  The likelihood of any international consensus on real action against the Syrian political leadership is zero, and as the desperation of the Syrian people grows, the horror and brutality will increase, and the world will once again look away in burning shame.

Already, less than 90 days after the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, we're seeing sweeping political changes that have a real chance of changing the abiding, hidebound dynamic.  In every direction, while the risks are real, so, at long last, are the chances of a breakthrough.  In rapid succession this week we have seen the political reconciliation of the Palestinian leadership and the opening of the Rafah crossing into Gaza.  In the first case, regardless of what the feckless and deeply biased Israeli and American negotiators say about Hamas, the Palestinian people, just like every other population, has the right to choose their political leadership.  And the fact that Hamas and Fatah have allowed themselves to be manipulated into factions speaks poorly of both their political skills and their focus.  Typically, the various factions in a rebel or separatist movement hold together until after they accomplish their political goals, then they break down and start squabbling for wealth or power.  The measure of how successful the movement actually was is in whether these squabbles are waged with ballots or bullets.  It is important at this time of sweeping change and demands for basic civil rights throughout the region that the Palestinian leadership demonstrate an ability to stand together, in both their demands for rights as basic as citizenship and in their tactics, for the world is moving toward a readiness to support them, if they can just demonstrate they are not murderers and butchers.

And at last, an opportunity for the people in Gaza to engage in real commerce, buy and sell goods, receive international aid, food and medicine, along with the chance to rebuild lives and towns and businesses, will be something the world can look on as a positive change.  The brutal Israeli blockade and embargo against those long-suffering people could not have been enforced without Egyptian complicity, and it is wonderful to see the people of Egypt speaking with one voice, saying that they will not contribute to the collective punishment of their neighbors any longer.

The Giants:
One month into the season the Giants are 13-13, four and a half games behind the surprising Rockies.  Their starting center fielder, third baseman and number five starting pitcher are on the disabled list, and as a team they are batting .241 and have committed 18 errors.  Just as last year, they struggle mightily to score runs, and this year their pitching, while still better than average, seems a bit more human, and so the margin of error is even smaller.  I don't honestly know what it says about this team, but yesterday the Giants pitchers walked 9 and hit another 3, a total of 12 free baserunners, and still somehow managed to hold the Nationals to a single run, allowing a San Francisco 2-1 victory.  Is that amazingly dreadful pitching, or amazingly resilient?  Can it be both?  How many games can you expect to win scoring 2 runs?  This could be a very long, hard to watch season, and if they aren't careful it could be over by the all star break.  Colorado won't play .700 ball all year, but it might take 94 or even 95 wins to take the division, and you just can't get there if you play .500 ball for too long.

Tee Vee:
I'm not sure about The Event.  I keep watching it, even though none of the characters are believable, or even likable.  Initially, I found Sean to be interesting and sympathetic, but watching him work through the ship in Murmansk with his pistol like he's suddenly some kind of commando was jarring, and kind of silly.  The abrupt change in Sophia from interstellar statesman to brutal invader doesn't make a lot of sense, and frankly I'm glad to see President Martinez incapacitated.  The man was seriously stupid.  Hasn't made a single good decision or judgement from the get go.  Leila is just deadweight, and Michael can't seem to decide what he wants, so perhaps he is the most believable character.  And while I originally found Blake to be predictably loathsome, he's actually one of the richer characters, while Vice President Jarvis is completely one dimensional as the cowardly villain who pretty much can't do anything right.

Even with all that, I keep watching.  The premise is great, and while the initial thinly-veiled commentary on Guantanamo and the "War on Terror" was interesting, we're well past any valuable insights and into a straight-up fantasy adventure.  And while it's hard to see how the premise extends into the next season (just a covert war between the Aliens and the Humans?  What happens when the rest of them get here?), I'm definitely going to stick around and see how this one turns out.

Meanwhile, after a slow start, Justified has built this season's story arc into a powerful, compelling replay of an ancient Harlan County feud, with all the intensity you'd expect by an Elmore Leonard exploration of love and hate in the Holler.  Maggs Bennett is an amazing character and you simply cannot take your eyes off Boyd Crowder.  This year Raylan finds himself all alone, as Art will no longer protect him in the Marshal's Service and even Eva has abandoned him for Boyd.  Drawn back together in extremis, Raylan and Winona try to plan some kind of future for themselves outside of Harlan County, even as they know that the same dynamic that tore them apart the first time will do so again.

This is an example of what Tee Vee can be, when the best writers contribute compelling stories with rich characters and a finely drawn sense of place.  It is quite simply not to be missed.