Monday, September 24, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Questioning Ahmadinejad

Say His Name Fast Three Times
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in New York to address the UN this week, so Iran has been on a lot of people's minds. 60 Minutes interviewed Ahmadinejad: see the transcript and video on their web site. It's amazing to me what a hostile interview CBS' Scott Pelley does. Again and again, he repeats Bush administration talking points to Ahmadinejad as if they were the consensus views of the American people, and demands yes-or-no responses to them.

The first set of questions is about Ahmadinejad's plan to visit Ground Zero in New York, which apparently is not going to be allowed. Bear in mind that Iran is Shia and Al Qaeda is Sunni, so they have no affection for each other. Also that the Iranian government made all the appropriate gestures of condolence after 9/11.
PELLEY: Sir, what were you thinking? The World Trade Center site is the most sensitive place in the American heart, and you must have known that visiting there would be insulting to many, many Americans.

AHMADINEJAD: Why should it be insulting?

PELLEY: Well, sir, you're the head of government of an Islamist state that the United States government says is a major exporter of terrorism around the world.

AHMADINEJAD: Well, I wouldn't say that what the American government says is the prerequisite here. Something happened there which led to other events. Many innocent people were killed there. Some of those people were American citizens obviously. We obviously are very much against any terrorist action and any killing. And also we are very much against any plots to sow the seeds of discord among nations. Usually you go to these sites to pay your respects. And also to perhaps air your views about the root causes of such incidents. I think that when I do that, I will be paying, as I said earlier, my respect to the American nation.

PELLEY: But the American people, sir, believe that your country is a terrorist nation, exporting terrorism in the world. You must have known that visiting the World Trade Center site would infuriate many Americans, as if to be mocking the American people.

AHMADINEJAD: Well, I'm amazed. How can you speak for the whole of the American nation?
It goes on like that. Go look.

While I'm on the subject, I think we screwed up by not letting him go to Ground Zero. If we show him every hospitality and he insults us, he looks bad. But if we show him disrespect because we're afraid to be insulted, we look bad. We should not put a country like Iran in a position to lecture us about free speech and freedom of expression.

Juan Cole's take on Ahmadinejad and the American government is on Salon.

The Best Graph of The Week
Until recently, Paul Krugman's excellent column was behind the firewall at the New York Times web site, so only subscribers could see it. (Brilliant marketing: We're going to assemble a great roster of columnists and then make sure they're seen by as few people as possible.) Now it's not only available, but Paul also has a blog "The Conscience of a Liberal" on the Times site. He kicked off his blog by posting a graph that is the proverbial picture-worth-a-thousand-words: The percentage of America's national income that has gone to the top 10%, from 1917 to the present. It's a simple concept, and it clearly makes the point that America used to be a much more egalitarian society than it is today.

Now There's a Word For...
... when people scan through blog comments looking for crazy stuff they can quote to characterize the other side as wackos. It's called nutpicking. Keven Drum identified the phenomenon in August, 2006 and had a contest to name it, but it has taken me this long to notice. Drum's Law goes like this:
If you're forced to rely on random blog commenters to make a point about the prevalence of some form or another of disagreeable behavior, you've pretty much made exactly the opposite point.
In other words, a movement is characterized by its leaders and by people who have public followings. If you can't demonstrate some wacko point of view by quoting them, it can't be very widespread or significant.

Republican Watch
Speaking of leaders whose statements might characterize a movement, Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani proposed expanding NATO to include Israel, which (as Matthew Yglesias puts it ) commits "the United States to the armed defense of the borders of a country that lacks internationally recognized borders." Glenn Greenwald calls it "the single most extremist policy of any major presidential candidate." Strange that John Edwards' haircut got so much more attention than this.

At the Values Voters Presidential Debate last Monday (I missed it too), the Grand Avenue Church of God choir sang, "Why Should God Bless America?" to the tune (naturally) of "God Bless America". People For the American Way has the lyrics and video on their web site. If you doubt for a second that there's a pro-conservative bias in American news coverage, try to imagine what would happen if a liberal group did the same thing: strung together a litany of America's failure to embody liberal values and perverted a patriotic classic to challenge America's worthiness. The outcry would last for weeks, like the bleating about the Move-On General Betray Us ad.

American Prospect editor Garance Franke-Ruta blogged a female point of view on Chris Matthews strange claim that Fred Thompson is sexy. The post ends by placing Tom Brady's Sports Illustrated cover next to a CNN picture of Thompson. "Any questions?"

I'm really starting to like the video they do over at TPM. Last Monday they examined John McCain's appearance on Meet the Press and spliced in video of the events that McCain was mischaracterizing. Why can't the TV news networks do stuff like this?

There's Still a War in Iraq
The Washington Post observes that the administration's plan to get the troop levels back to pre-Surge levels by July are not very solid. Quoting the White House's Stephen Hadley:
"What General Petraeus talked about was not a timetable, it was an expectation that if progress on security continues, he will be able to make some adjustments and drawdowns," Hadley said at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations. Reductions, he said "will depend on the conditions on the ground," among which is "whether the Iraqi security forces will be able to take responsibility for more of the door-to-door population security."
So if violence spikes back up, or if the Iraqi security forces don't live up to the administrations' expectations, all bets are off. But that couldn't happen, could it?

That's why the argument about whether the Surge has been working is so important. If General Petraeus' evidence of progress is smoke and mirrors, then the planned troop withdrawals (minimal as they are) are smoke and mirrors too. And over at Democracy Arsenal, Ilan Goldenberg can't make General Petraeus' numbers play nicely with a report that the Pentagon just delivered to Congress.

The New York Times wrote about Iraq's internal refugees. Interesting point here: The refugees are not necessarily sorting themselves out along sectarian lines. Sometimes they're just going to neighborhoods that have more reliable electricity.

I need more time to figure out what's going on with the Blackwater security contractors in Iraq. I do know this much: One reason the number of American troops in Iraq looks as low as it does is that we also employ a lot of private contractors. A bunch of them are cooks and drivers and so forth (who make many times what a soldier makes -- that's the efficiency of the free market at work), but some of them are mercenaries who carry guns and do things like protect our diplomats. That's Blackwater and a few other companies.

It's not at all clear what law, if any, applies to these folks. If they were our soldiers, they'd be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And if they were Iraqis, they'd be subject to Iraqi law. But Blackwater exists in a legal gray area. So if they did indeed shoot up a bunch of Iraqis for no good reason, they may get away with it.

Brave New Films provides this jazzy video about Blackwater. The only thing I have to add is that my friend in the Marines tells me that the real soldiers hate these guys. They make a lot of money, they're accountable to nobody, if they get fed up they can go home, and when they get into trouble the real soldiers have to come and rescue them. The nastiness in Fallujah, you may remember, started with insurgents killing four Blackwater guys.

So I guess I can add one more item to the list of words I never thought I'd associate with America: torture, secret prison, pre-emptive invasion, and now mercenaries.

Want to Know. Want to Know.
Check out the Strokeland Superband's music video Colin Powell, which asks the musical question: "When will Colin Powell write his tell-all book?" I can't say I've ever had to rhyme "harsh interrogation".


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