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No we can’t

[ 0 ] November 18, 2008 |

This story, indicating that the Obama administration is bailing on the idea even investigating whether criminal charges ought to be brought against Bush administration officials who committed war crimes such as torture, is very discouraging.

From the standpoint of both the demands of justice and the politically intelligent thing to do, giving off signals that criminals in the Bush administration will simply be let off the hook is a terrible idea. Of course any investigation or prosecution runs the risk of targeting lower level people who really were just following orders, while letting the big fish off the hook — which is all the more reason that Obama should be making it clear to Bush that if he wants his top cronies to be in the clear, legally, he’s going to have to pardon them (it’s slightly unclear constitutionally speaking if Bush can pardon himself, although I have to admit that would be a fitting capstone to the man’s career).

I went to a talk yesterday by a Tanzanian legal official about the great efforts that are being made in Africa to set up a genuine system of international justice for the continent’s war criminals. One thing he spoke of was the great suspicion throughout Africa and the third world that the concept of a war crime is something that applies only to the leaders of weaker nations, and in particular will never apply to the government of the United States.

It would be to say the least unfortunate if one of Obama’s first acts is to confirm those suspicions.

The Stevens Situation

[ 0 ] November 18, 2008 |

Hopefully Alaska’s voters will be shown to have made the decision before the Senate has to…

Australian Navy Goes on Vacation

[ 0 ] November 18, 2008 |

Innovative:

Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon says a two-month Navy shutdown over Christmas has been ordered to give staff a rest as the Navy continues to grapple with staff shortages. The shutdown will involve all ships not on operational duties and some staff will be allowed to work from home.

Mr Fitzgibbon says the Government is working to address staff shortages in the Navy. “We’re doing a lot of work trying to find new and innovative ways both to retain skilled people and recruit new people and this is an interim initiative designed to just give some rest and respite to people in Navy where we have our biggest challenge,” he told Lyndal Curtis on AM.

“These people have been facing an extended period of operational tempo and it’s just a way of saying thank you and encouraging them to stay in the service rather than leave.”

He has also not ruled out further Christmas shutdowns in the future.

Job Cuts at FoF

[ 0 ] November 17, 2008 |

I suppose this means that James Dobson will be focusing not quite so hard as usual on (messing with other people’s) families. It’s obviously an unfortunate thing when 200 people lose their jobs, no matter whom they work for; worse, it looks like most of the folks who will be taking the hit work in FoF’s distribution facilities, processing and packaging and mailing the insufferably stupid shit that keeps Dobson wealthy and significant. These folks don’t make a lot of money. One hopes that when they realize their boss smoked $500 $50 million [jeebus!] $500,000 on a California ballot measure that might be nullified anyway, they’ll spend their last days on the job stealing everything that isn’t nailed down.

Chinese Aircraft Carrier, Take 42

[ 0 ] November 17, 2008 |

NYT:

A high-ranking Chinese military official has hinted that China’s fast-growing navy is seeking to acquire an aircraft carrier, a move that would surely stoke tensions with the United States military and its allies in Asia.

China has been floating rumours of aircraft carrier construction for at least the last ten years. As such, it’s not as if these particular rumours represent anything new. That said, now would not be a bad time for China to build a carrier. They’ve had plenty of time to study Varyag and the other two rustbuckets that they purchased from Russia. As far as I can tell the largest warships China has ever constructed are 6500 ton destroyers, but nevertheless I’d say that China is probably about as prepared to build a carrier as any country that’s never built an aircraft carrier.

Perhaps as important, China is looking for ways to stimulate its economy. Defense spending isn’t as productive as other forms of investment, but if the CCP feels that it’s oversaturating with further infrastructure investment, a general military buildup makes some sense. USS Yorktown and USS Enterprise, after all, began life as part of the general economic stimulus pursued by FDR in his first term.

The Finlandization of Iceland

[ 0 ] November 17, 2008 |

Ahem.

In an official lunch with foreign diplomats, Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson shocked neighboring Nordic countries with inviting Russia to take use of the strategically important airbase.

Foreign diplomats hardly believed what they heard when the Icelandic president said that his country needs “new friends” and that Russia should be invited to take use of the old U.S. airbase of Keflavik.

In the lunch which took place in Reykjavik last Friday, Mr. Grimsson accused neighboring countries of failing to support the crisis-ridden Iceland, newspaper Dagbladet reports with reference to Klassekampen.

An internal memo from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, obtained by the newspaper, describes the diplomats present in the event as “shocked” by the speech.

In retrospect, it probably wasn’t a great idea to declare Iceland a terrorist state.

Playoff

[ 0 ] November 17, 2008 |

Obama deserves to be crowned Jesus if he can pull this off:

I think any sensible person would say that if you’ve got a bunch of teams who play throughout the season, and many of them have one loss or two losses, there’s no clear decisive winner that we should be creating a playoff system.

Eight teams. That would be three rounds, to determine a national champion. It would it would add three extra weeks to the season. You could trim back on the regular season. I don’t know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this. So, I’m gonna throw my weight around a little bit. I think it’s the right thing to do.

Bailouts And Consequences

[ 0 ] November 17, 2008 |

I think this article by Jon Cohn is very important. There are two points here that I think should be emphasized. First, I do think that there’s a tendency to go a little overboard when it comes to the quality and popularity of American cars. This is largely the fault of the companies themselves — if you buy one crappy, unreliable car in the 70s or 80s you won’t buy another one — but in addition to what Jon mentions the Malibu is selling well and has been well-regarded by critics, and Cadillac makes as good a car as anyone in the luxury market. I don’t think it’s terribly unreasonable to think that GM and Ford, at least, could become profitable companies after the downturn.

But secondly, and more importantly, I think that at the very least it’s important to be clear-eyed about the consequences of bankruptcy. I don’t think sanguine claims that auto companies could just file bankruptcy like an airline and keep running their operations and re-emerge in better shape. This might work for airlines — where all that matters to most consumers is price to the destination, many customers aren’t even paying the modest price themselves, and you don’t care if the airline you fly next Tuesday is in business in 5 years — but car companies, who need customers to make one large-term purchase with their own money they will be exceedingly reluctant to make if they don’t think a company will be around to honor warranties and provide parts. Bankruptcy will almost certainly lead to liquidation with horrifying economic consequences.

Does this mean that the bailout is good policy? Not necessarily; we have to see what the plan looks like first. There are real reasons to be skeptical of government intervention. I do think, however, it’s important not to kid ourselves about the consequences of deciding against the bailout. Is it worth letting hundreds of thousands of jobs (many of them good union jobs) go while a region of the country is completely devastated as a selective token of adherence to Free Market Principles? Maybe, but let’s be clear about the choice we’re making. The idea of GM going through an orderly Chapter 11 restructuring in this economy is almost certainly dreaming in technicolor.

Haloscan

[ 0 ] November 17, 2008 |

This does not seem to have been a…smooth rollout of their new technology.

Wishing Conflict Away

[ 0 ] November 17, 2008 |

I certainly respect E.J Dionne far more than I do Will Saletan. But it must be said that his new column has a pretty strong whiff of the “originating policies pro-choicers have been advocating for many decades” routine that Saletan has patented. Apparently, the solution to ending the conflict over abortion includes “contraception programs, even if these are a sticking point for some social conservatives, along with ‘programs that are going to encourage women to bring their children to term.’ Among them: expanded health coverage for women and children, more child care, adoption help, and income support for the working poor.” Since pro-choice liberals have pretty much always supported these policies and they don’t seem to stop the anti-choice minority from supporting criminalization (as well as opposing most or all of these programs, almost as if reducing abortion rates isn’t a terribly important goal for American “pro-lifers”), it’s not clear what’s actually supposed to change about the abortion politics here.

Of course, if fine old wine can broaden the coalition for reproductive freedom if we dust off the bottles with some rhetoric that appeals to some members of the ofter side, what’s the harm? Well, I worry about defending good policies with such justifications as “encouraging women to bring more pregnancies to term,” justifications that can pretty quickly end up in arguments for burdensome abortion regulations. But the real problem with Dionne’s argument is his apparent belief that enacting this (as stated) worthwhile program would somehow “make cultural warfare a quaint relic of the past.” This won’t happen, simply because anti-abortion politics tends to be bundled up with an array of other reactionary attitudes about women and sexuality that undercut support for other policies that will reduce abortion rates. Some examples from Margaret Tabot’s superb new article:

But, according to Add Health data, evangelical teen-agers are more sexually active than Mormons, mainline Protestants, and Jews. On average, white evangelical Protestants make their “sexual début”–to use the festive term of social-science researchers–shortly after turning sixteen. Among major religious groups, only black Protestants begin having sex earlier.

Another key difference in behavior, Regnerus reports, is that evangelical Protestant teen-agers are significantly less likely than other groups to use contraception. This could be because evangelicals are also among the most likely to believe that using contraception will send the message that they are looking for sex. It could also be because many evangelicals are steeped in the abstinence movement’s warnings that condoms won’t actually protect them from pregnancy or venereal disease. More provocatively, Regnerus found that only half of sexually active teen-agers who say that they seek guidance from God or the Scriptures when making a tough decision report using contraception every time. By contrast, sixty-nine per cent of sexually active youth who say that they most often follow the counsel of a parent or another trusted adult consistently use protection.

Read the whole etc. It would be fine if Democrats passed legislation funding contraception and rational sex-ed, as well as assistance for young mothers (not to mention legislation recognizing a federal right for a woman to choose an abortion.) But even the Democrats pass only the first two sets of policies, it’s not going to magically end conflicts over abortion or take the issue off the table. You’d thunk contraception use would be an issue on which it’s easy to build consensus, but it’s not.

From Colony to Superpower: Part II

[ 0 ] November 17, 2008 |

George Washington composed his Farewell Address in cooperation with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. The process took roughly five years, as the initial text was prepared in anticipation of a 1792 retirement. In one of the drafts of the address, Washington/Madison/Hamilton look forward to a time in which the United States

shall possess the strength of a giant, and there will be none who can make us afraid.

George Herring introduces the second chapter of From Colony to Superpower with this quote, and highlights in in his introduction. Washington’s Farewell Address is a remarkably important document for the study of American foreign policy, but discussion of it tends to focus on other elements, most notably Washington’s injunctions against alliances and other entanglements with Europe. Unlike some such documents, the Farewell Address isn’t a sphinx without a secret; it lays forth a relatively straightforward and coherent vision of what American foreign policy should look like. Fans of hegemonic and liberal internationalist approaches to American foreign policy should, I think, disagree with much of what Washington argues, although they can excuse him for writing under different circumstances than hold today. In any case, the decision to highlight a quote from an unfinished draft of the Address is curious, and I have to suspect that Herring would not have done so if the book had been published prior to the September 11 attacks. Those attacks demonstrated that the strength of a giant was insufficient to protect us from being afraid.

What strikes more than anything about the quote is its naivety. It feels particularly naive in the context of the last ten years of American history, but it was naive at the time, and misunderstands the relationship between fear and power. We fear when we believe that our values are threatened; national security is about the protection of those values. The more things that we have (whether territory, freedom, economic well-being, etc.) the more likely we are to feel fear. It’s hardly accidental that the most notable moments of raw terror over foreign affairs in the United States have come as the US ascended to a new apex of power. During the McCarthyite hysteria of the 1950s and following the attacks of September 11, the United States had great capacity to protect itself than ever before, but this capacity didn’t translate into a feeling of security. The power of the United States depends on an interlocking series of relationships both domestic and international. More stuff translates into more power, but it also means more threats; whereas the United States could be utterly indifferent to the course of a Greek civil war in the 19th century, in the 1950s such a war could potentially threaten the edifice upon which American power was built. Power and fear in the international system are tightly bound together; more of the first almost invariably means more of the second.

This should not have been lost on Washington, as he certainly could see that neither Britain nor France, in spite of their great power relative to the United States, were free from fear. There is also a neoconservative interpretation of the comment; Washington could have meant that as a powerful republic, the United States would reshape the world such that there would be nothing to fear. That’s seems to be a bit of a stretch, however, especially since Washington makes direct reference to size and power, rather than ideology. The notion of a United States reaching out and transforming the world through raw power is also alien to the rest of the Farewell Address, most of which (as alluded to above) is consumed by warnings against entanglement with the Old World.

It’s also possible (perhaps likely) that Washington meant nothing of the sort when he wrote the comment:

That our Union may be as lasting as time for while we are encircled in one band we shall possess the strength of a giant and there will be none who can make us afraid Divide and we shall become weak a prey to foreign intrigues and internal discord and shall be as miserable and contemptible as we are now enviable and happy.

In context, it seems to me much more of an injunction against disunity than a dream about the rise of American power. However, because Herring uses the quote to generate interesting thoughts rather than to illustrate the political vision of Washington/Hamilton/Madison, I can forgive the out of context citation.

The second chapter of Colony to Superpower brings us from the ratification of the Constitution to the election of Thomas Jefferson. The revolutionary spirit still animated American foreign policy to an extent, but it was tempered both by the severe constraints on US capabilities and by the motivating ideology of the American Revolution. While there was some sympathy for the French Revolution, there was also deep concern about its extent. No such confusion existed in reference to the Haitian Revolution; in a pattern that would be repeated ad nauseum throughout US history, the young Republic gave military assistance to the counter-revolutionary planter class of Haiti, and accepted its refugees following the rebel victory. The Haitian revolt played some role in the deep political divide that followed the French Revolution, as the Southern planter class argued for military and financial assistance to France so that the new government could put down the rebellion. This isn’t to say that the Federalists were enthused by the Haitian Revolt, but they didn’t tend to find the idea of a bloody slave revolt as frightening as did the Republicans.

Herring capably covers the familiar story of the conflict between the Federalists and the Republicans throughout the 1790s. I’ve seen it argued that this early battle between supporters of France and Britain raised the political salience of foreign policy to a degree unmatched in American politics until the 1950s, and Herring seems general in accord with that view. Herring is generally sympathetic to the Federalists, suggesting that much criticism of the Jay treaty was unwarranted, and that Adams accomplished a difficult task in keeping the US mostly out of war with France. The Alien and Sedition Acts receive curiously little attention.

I have more, but I’ll pass it over to Erik…

Is This Rich?

[ 1 ] November 16, 2008 |

All-star commenter IB says:

OT (but appropriate to a previously stated position of this blog): Another smart Sunday piece by Frank Rich.

(Noted because: About a week ago, someone (SL, I think, but correct me if I’m wrong) argued a la Somerby that one’s saying something unfair about Al Gore in 2000 should forever banish one from publication. I defended Rich by saying that, while he has certainly on occasion been wrong, he is more often right and worth reading. So here’s what I feel confident is the first of many examples offered in treal time.)

Well, first of all, “something unfair” is one thing, “making up lies about Al Gore when not obsessing about trivia while repeatedly arguing that he was indistinguishable from George W. Bush” quite another. (And, to be frank, I am in fact inclined to think that someone who thought that it wouldn’t make any difference whether Al Gore or George Bush is in the White House really shouldn’t be pulling down six figures a year to write about politics.) At any rate, while I will concede that (as with many of his columns) there’s nothing especially objectionable about this one, I would also be interested in IB (or anyone else) IDing the point at which Rich tells any mildly informed liberal anything they don’t already know. Parties engage in circular firing squads after losing elections? You don’t say!

I should also say that, to the extent that Rich’s point isn’t banal, I don’t actually agree with it. Obviously, comparisons to 1936 are silly; the Republicans, working in exceptionally bad structural conditions, got 162 electoral votes (as opposed to, say, 8) and lost several other states by very close margins. They maintain a solid regional base that is going to gain electoral votes in 2010, and their coalition remains probably more internally coherent than that of the typical large brokerage party in a two-party system. Party fissures are always more apparent in defeat, but it’s premature at best to think that 2008 portends a major realignment in American politics.