Monday, October 01, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week

October in New Hampshire really is quite lovely. The leaves are only starting to turn, and just enough of the heat has gone that long walks without a jacket are perfectly comfortable. It's still a couple of weeks before things become stunningly beautiful, but days like this deserve appreciation for their own virtues.

Iran Speculation
The most important question about the Bush administration's remaining 15 months in office is: Will they attack Iran? No one who knows is posting their ideas on the Internet, but it's hard not to try to read the tea leaves. Sometimes it seems like everyone who has a friend working for the administration is putting forward a theory based on their inside information.

I don't have any friends telling me inside information about the administration's plans for Iran. But it's interesting how many different articles fit into the following frame: Dick Cheney favors an attack of some sort on Iran, but the Joint Chiefs are dead set against it. President Bush is siding with the generals, which is why we haven't attacked yet. But Cheney, possibly with the help of Cheney-like operators inside the Israeli government, hopes to engineer an incident that will change Bush's mind.

I offer not one solid fact to back that story up. I am posting it the way I might post my speculations about the upcoming season of Heroes. It's a narrative that hangs together and fits my general impressions of the major characters.

Finally I have found a statistic out of Iraq that strikes me as genuine good news: For the first time since November, 2006, fewer coalition troops died in Iraq last month than in the same month of the previous year. There were 66 coalition troop deaths in September, 2007 versus 72 in September, 2006. I'll report next month on whether that's a fluke or a trend.

Eliminating the Middle Man
I'm a late-comer to this story, but I'm guessing I'm not the only person who missed it when Wired covered it back in May. Hasan Elahi is a Bangladeshi-American art professor at Rutgers. He travels about 70,000 miles a year, so his name shows up on lists in a lot of FBI offices. After being detained at the Detroit airport in 2002, Elahi started worrying about the possibility that some mistake or misunderstanding could land him in Guantanamo, where it might take years for him to get a hearing.

At some point he realized that the real threat wasn't surveillance, it was bad surveillance: What if somebody at the FBI put together three or four random facts that made him look suspicious? Figuring that if you want anything done right you should do it yourself, Elahi started spying on himself and posting his reports to a website. He carries a GPS tracker that uploads his location (he's in Buffalo today), and he also uploads photographs of meals he eats, receipts for things he buys, urinals he's used, and whatever else he imagines the government might be curious about.

If you had a TMI-reaction to the urinals, that's the point. His sinister strategy is to so totally over-produce information about himself that all information about him becomes worthless. "It's economics," he says, "I flood the market."

Books I: Winter in Kabul
If Ann Jones weren't such a fabulous writer, there would be no hope of anybody finishing her book Winter in Kabul. It's dismal and depressing and does a brilliant job of capturing the dysfunctionality both of Afghan culture and of every Western attempt to "help" the Afghans, including her own. If you've ever thought: "It's simple, we should just ..." put that thought aside and read this book.

For me, Winter in Kabul was like a bad love affair: It made me miserable, but I couldn't stop reading it. Jones went to Kabul in 2002, as soon as the city became (sort of) safe. She wasn't part of any organization, and she went at her own expense to see if she could help. Her plan was to train high school English teachers, many of whom were women who hadn't been allowed to teach (or maybe even to leave their homes) during the Taliban era. For the next two and a half years, she (sort of) did that. She also tried to help with an effort to improve a prison for women, and to teach Afghans about the rights that their constitution claims they have.

But nothing goes according to plan, and along the way you meet some fascinating characters, like one nameless man who gives Jones a ride back to her hotel. In a matter-of-fact tone he explains the momentum that civil war picks up after thirty years: "We all killed people, you see. Someone's father, sister, daughter, brother. So we are all subject to revenge. We cannot put down our arms because we are all guilty."

And there are scenes like this one in 2003, when Jones and a news-starved colleague finally power up the generator and get the satellite TV working.
Fox News went on describing a mission accomplished in a place they called Afghanistan, a country utterly unlike the one in which we lived. One night, as we sat in the dark to save generator power for the TV set, we heard some no-name right-wing think-tank prowar neocon talking head explain that America could speedily repair any incidental damage to Iraq's infrastructure, just as it had done in Afghanistan. Security, water, electricity -- all those things Kabulis had learned to live without -- he said had been restored in Kabul "in no time." Even in the dim glow of the TV, I could see that Helen was weeping. "Please can we go back to the BBC?" she said, and we never watched Fox News again.
For another view of the "success" in Afghanistan, see this video by Lara Logan.

Books II: Dead Certain and The Terror Presidency
Three weeks ago I told you about Charlie Savage's book Takeover, which lays out the Bush administration's unprecedented expansion of executive power. A good companion to that book is The Terror Presidency by Jack Goldsmith. Goldsmith gives the inside view of many of the same events portrayed from the outside by Savage. Goldsmith (now a Harvard Law School professor) was the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel from October, 2003 to June, 2004.

The OLC is probably the most powerful organization that the average American hasn't heard of. If you work in the executive branch of the US government -- say for the CIA or the FBI -- and you want to know what the law says you can or can't do, you ask the OLC. They do in advance what the Supreme Court does in retrospect. Their rulings govern whose phone you can tap, who you can torture, and who you can kill. If the president wants to know whether he can invade a country without Congressional authorization, he asks the OLC. Sounds important, doesn't it?

Goldsmith's account is significant partly because of what he can report first hand, but also because of who he is. He's a conservative legal scholar who is not by any stretch of the imagination a Bush-hating liberal. He believes the terrorist threat is real. He thinks the executive branch needs unprecedented powers to deal with that threat. But he profoundly disagrees with the way that the Bush administration has claimed those powers.

When Goldsmith took the OLC job, he discovered that he was now responsible for the work of his predecessors, particularly John Yoo, author of the now-infamous "torture memo" that justified extreme interrogation techniques. A series of highly classified OLC rulings seemed to Goldsmith to be too broad and sloppily reasoned. He spent the bulk of his months at OLC replacing these rulings with narrower, more specific rulings that left less room for abuse. He was fought every step of the way by David Addington, legal counsel for Vice President Cheney.

The book contains a lot of presidential history. In particular, Goldsmith contrasts Bush with two other presidents who sought expanded power at a time of crisis: Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. But Lincoln and Roosevelt saw this situation as a political problem: how to build a consensus of support for their new powers. Bush sees things differently.
The Bush adminstration has operated on an entirely different concept of power that relies on minimal deliberation, unilateral action, and legalistic defense. This approach largely eschews politics: the need to explain, to justify, to convince, to get people on board, to compromise.
He describes the administration's approach to the FISA law against domestic wiretaps like this:
After 9/11 they dealt with FISA the way they dealt with other laws they didn't like: they blew through them in secret based on flimsy legal opinions that they guarded closely so that no one could question the legal basis for the operations. ... Before I arrived in OLC, not even NSA lawyers were allowed to see the Justice Department's legal analysis of what the NSA was doing.
Goldsmith sees this strategy as ultimately self-defeating. Rather than building consensus, the administration has created resistance inside the federal bureaucracy, in the courts, in the Congress, and in the general population. In the long run, Goldsmith believes, the presidency will be more constrained and less powerful because it has created an atmosphere of distrust.

I reviewed a third Bush book, Dead Certain by Robert Draper, on my blog a few days ago. This is a different kind of inside look at the Bush administration, and gives more insight into Bush's personality than any other book I've seen.

In Case You Missed It
It's really easy for a news item to get distorted when it agrees with something "everybody knows". For example, everybody knows that marriages don't last like they used to, so when new statistics from the Census Bureau seemed to show that less than half of the marriages in 1975-79 had made it to their 25th anniversary, it made headlines. But not so fast, say Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. It turns out that the data was from mid-2004, so not all the 1979 couples had been given a chance to celebrate their 25th. When the complete results came in, 53% of the couples had made it. Stevenson and Wolfers' examination of the data leads to this conclusion: "The facts are that divorce is down, and today’s marriages are more stable than they have been in decades."

The entry of ex-Governor Jeanne Shaheen into the race probably makes the Democratic senate nomination in New Hampshire a foregone conclusion, but Democrats need to find some way to take advantage of the talents of lesser-known candidate Jay Buckey. Buckey is a professor of medicine at Dartmouth who flew on the space shuttle, and things just sound obvious when he explains them. Check out this video on health care.

I love a great graphic. Bill O'Reilly, currently trying to escape from the consequences of his own idiotic racial stereotyping, claimed that his remarks were taken out of context. So to put things in context, assembled a pie-chart of all the ways O'Reilly has referred to black people over the years. It speaks for itself.

On the Balkinization blog, Paul Finkelman compares President Bush's use of the Blackwater mercenaries to Britain's use of Hessian mercenaries in the Revolutionary War. "Sadly, the more he sanctions the use of mercenaries, hired guns, and armed cowboys on helicopters, the more our Third President George begins to look like our nation's first enemy, George the Third." More on Blackwater here and here.

Capital Eye notes that soldiers are contributing more to Democrats than they used to. In past election cycles, political contributions from members of the military run about 80/20 in favor of the Republicans. This time around, it's 60/40 -- still Republican, but much less so. And the Republican presidential candidate receiving the most money from the military is the only one against the war: Ron Paul.

Satire is alive and well on DailyKos. Hunter parodies bad partisanship in "The Obvious Greatness of My Presidential Candidate." And Carnacki explains some recent votes in Congress with this scoop: "Breaking: Dems WANT to Lose in 2008."

If the situation in Burma (also known as Myanmar) hasn't made it onto your radar screen yet, this article will catch you up. Burma is among the most corrupt countries on Earth, but as long as their oil flows freely no one cares.

Finally, over a period of years Thomas Friedman has written so many columns claiming that "the next six months" would be crucial in Iraq that six months became known as a
Friedman Unit (FU). Well, Sunday he changed his tune and announced that "9/11 is Over". He writes:
9/11 has made us stupid. I honor, and weep for, all those murdered on that day. But our reaction to 9/11 — mine included — has knocked America completely out of balance, and it is time to get things right again.
How's that for a 2008 slogan: "Time to get things right again."


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