Monday, November 26, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Bush on Musharraf

Quote of the Week: Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on. -- Winston Churchill

True Believers in Democracy
In the transcript of the divorce proceedings between President Bush and Reality, a few lines stand out. "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. ... Bring them on. ... I'm a uniter, not a divider. ... Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. ... We found the weapons of mass destruction. ..." and several others. Perhaps you have your own favorite.

Well, there's a new one to add to the list. Last Tuesday, when ABC News asked Bush about US ally General Musharraf, the Pakistani military dictator who recently completed his second coup, the President said, "He hasn't crossed the line. ... I think he truly is somebody who believes in democracy."

In watching the rest of the interview, I was pleased to hear President Bush answer questions about our own elections as if they are really going to happen and will result in a new president taking office. Because Bush "truly is somebody who believes in democracy" too.

Ground-Level Views of Iraq
In Iraq it is important to keep track of both the high-level view of statistics -- deaths, oil production, electricity and so on -- and the low-level accounts of what life is like and what individual people are thinking. Recently there have been some really excellent ground-level views.

In The New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson talks to people on various sides of the Sunni/Shia divide and gives an interesting view of what's been going on since the Surge started. He cites the violence-reduction statistics and gives due respect to the successes of the new tactics. But he's skeptical about where things can go from here. His conversation with an Anbar-Sunni tribal leader (exactly the folks who are supposed to be making the Surge work) is not encouraging:
Zaidan said that Anbar’s Sunni tribes no longer had any need to exact blood vengeance on U.S. forces. “We’ve already taken our revenge,” he said. “We’re the ones who’ve made them crawl on their stomachs, and now we’re the ones to pick them up.” He added, “Once Anbar is settled, we must take control of Baghdad, and we will.” There would have to be a lot more fighting before the capital was taken back from the Shiites, he said. “The Anbaris will take charge of the purge. What the whole world failed to do in Anbar, we have done overnight. Baghdad will be a lot easier.”
Zaidan predicts that the Americans will provoke an intra-Shia civil war between the Arab Shia and the Persian Shia (who side with Iran). The Sunnis will fight on the American/Arab-Shia side, and will win.

Anderson tells an amazing story about two Shiites working with the Americans, who he calls Karim and Amar. They are using their American connections to help them take revenge against members of the Shiite Mahdi Army, who killed Amar's brother. Amar plans to kill a hundred men, and he delivers souvenir body parts of his victims to his mother, who approves.

Jared Polis is a Democratic congressional candidate from Colorado. He took a Thanksgiving trip to Iraq and has been blogging about it. Because he's just a candidate and not an actual congressman, Polis is traveling as a private citizen, the same way you would if you decided to go visit Baghdad. His accounts include a lot of nitty-gritty details and remarkably little spin for a politician: You have to change planes in Amman. The descent into Baghdad isn't as bad as everybody says. Power failures at Baghdad Airport happen often enough that everybody just goes on with what they're doing. The road from the airport to the Green Zone is a lot safer than it used to be. A lot of jobs are done by mercenary soldiers, many from Latin America, and so on.

He visits a mercenary compound and finds that the food there is much better than you can get at the Al Rashid Hotel. And then there's this:
The first question here is always "who are you with?" rather than "where are you from?" The contractors hold their corporate identity above their national identity. Indeed, they come from many nations and the common corporate culture bonds them and allows them to work together for their mutual benefit. It is eerily reminiscent of the post-nation state futures depicted in dystopian corporatocracy science fiction or anime.
Anyway, you can read all his blog entries. He talks to members of parliament, people who work for NGOs, and anybody else he runs across.

The best way to understand how far we are from due process of law in Iraq is to follow a single case, and the easiest case to follow is that of Bilal Hussein, an Iraqi who became a photographer for Associated Press. Hussein has been detained since April, 2006, and AP has been trying to get the military to either charge him with something or let him go ever since. Maybe he's in league with the terrorists, or maybe the Pentagon didn't like the way his photographs kept contradicting their propaganda. Who knows?

Even with a powerful news organization on his side, Hussein has been held without charges for more than a year and a half. Finally last week the Pentagon announced plans to file charges, but of course they won't say what day the hearing will be held, what the charges will be, or what evidence they plan to introduce. Hussein's lawyer will get a call at 6:30 on the morning of the hearing, and will show up prepared to defend his client against something-or-other. If Hussein is acquitted, they still don't have to set him free.

The Washington Post let AP's CEO comment here. Follow further developments on AP's web site.

Thousands of other Iraqis being held without charges. Most of them don't have an American corporation looking out for their rights.

Anatomy of Deceit
Marcy Wheeler's recent book Anatomy of Deceit is a quick read, and it's interesting for a number of reasons.
  • It pulls together a lot of the details of the Bush administration's outing of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame and ties it in with the overall marketing of the Iraq War. This is a story that has been spun to death, so it's worthwhile to see it all laid out end-to-end. In particular, when you look at the whole story over the long term, it's obvious that the Iraq War was the result of intentional deception, not accidentally bad intelligence.
  • Precisely because the mainstream media has done such a bad job of presenting this story and has allowed the administration to spin it any way it wants, the Plame case is an instructive example of the incestuous relationship between news organizations and the government that they're supposed to be keeping honest.
  • In particular, the Plame case shows how the First Amendment has been turned inside-out. Reporters need to be able to protect the identities of anonymous sources so that whistle-blowers within the government can expose wrong-doing without fear of retaliation. But in the Plame case, powerful wrong-doers within the government used the press to anonymously destroy the career of a whistle-blower's wife. By protecting the identities of their anonymous sources inside the administration, reporters were enabling precisely the kind of retaliation that source-protection is designed to prevent.
  • By focusing on the legal issues of who could be indicted and convicted, the press totally missed the moral side of this story: Valerie Plame was a covert CIA agent working on WMD proliferation -- precisely the issue that the Iraq War was supposed to be about. When her husband Joe Wilson started exposing the intentional deceit behind the war, the administration retaliated by blowing her cover and destroying her career forever. According to cable talk-show host Chris Matthews, Karl Rove told him that the Wilsons "were trying to screw the White House so the White House was going to screw them back." Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald concluded that he could not prove beyond reasonable doubt that Rove committed a crime. But is this really the moral level we want our government to operate on?
  • Wheeler is a blogger, not a traditional journalist. (She blogs under the name "emptywheel" on The Next Hurrah.) The coverage of the Plame case is a clear counter-example to the claim traditional journalists often make: That blogging is all about partisan ranting and not reporting. But in the Plame case journalists were part of the problem and wanted to sweep it all under the rug. Most of the real reporting was done by bloggers like Wheeler. That continued to be true through the Scooter Libby case, where Wheeler was part of a group that live-blogged the trial.
  • Wheeler is also a counter-example to the stereotype that bloggers are all men. And she works closely with another counter-example: Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake.

The book ends while Libby is still on trial, so it doesn't comment on the get-out-of-jail-free card President Bush gave him. So I will: We watched obstruction of justice happen in broad daylight and the major media treated it like it wasn't a big deal. Scooter committed perjury to keep an investigation from reaching the Vice President and/or the President. (What other theory makes sense? That he committed perjury for the hell of it?) And in return the president commuted his sentence. Quid pro quo.

The president's power to pardon is in the Constitution, so Libby's commutation can't be undone by either Congress or the courts. But a pardon in return for false testimony is obstruction of justice, and the only way to call a president to account for such crimes is impeachment. (It's worth pointing out that getting a job interview for a White House intern isn't illegal, but one of the impeachment counts against President Clinton was that he did so in exchange for Monica Lewinsky's false testimony in the Paula Jones case. It's an exact analog, except that the Bush case -- being about war rather than sex -- is obviously more serious.)

This is a god-awful precedent to have on the record. How we will ever get the executive branch back under constitutional control if the president can tell his people to commit crimes and promise them pardons if anything goes wrong? This isn't a partisan issue. Unless the Republicans are planning to hold onto the White House with a Musharraf-like coup, they need to start thinking about how a Democratic president will use the legal and political precedents that Bush has set. If they were smart and patriotic they would give bipartisan support to Kucinich's impeachment resolutions and save the Republic a lot of future trouble.

Satirized For Your Protection
Two of the best satirist bloggers are Dood Abides, DailyKos' resident master of Photoshop, and Jesus' General, who is more macho than is humanly possible. ("An 11 on the manly scale of absolute gender.")

A couple of the Dood's latest are Fred Thompson raising campaign funds by becoming the new Mr. Whipple for Charmin, and Bush waterboarding the National Turkey prior to its annual pardon. Each story is accompanied by an almost-convincing photo. The black hood on the turkey is a wonderful detail.

Meanwhile, the General writes to Time-Warner CEO Richard Parsons about the pressure he feels from being the only viewer of right-wing commentator Glenn Beck's show on CNN: "What if I had to use the restroom? Would some ambitious underling take advantage of the situation and cancel the program while no one -- and I mean that literally -- no one was watching?"

Another post has the General writing to Andrew Schlafly of the Conservapedia (the right-wing answer to the hopelessly biased Wikipedia) about the ten most popular articles on his site, nine of which are about homosexuality. The General is not surprised by this: "After all [homosexuality] is second only to the War on Christmas in terms of the danger it poses to this great nation. True patriots like ourselves must think about homosexuality every second of the day. It can be grueling, especially considering all the different kinds of homosexual sex there are to think about." The General goes on to offer Schlafly his own system for organizing his homosexual thoughts -- er, I mean, his thoughts about homosexuality.

And the General responds to the Pentagon's attempt to get wounded veterans to return their signing bonuses with this poster.

Short Notes
Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria points out a disturbing fact: Tourism is booming everywhere but in the United States. Why? Because we hassle foreigners. And it's not just Arabs or Muslims. Tourism from Japan is way down, and even from the UK. Think about that: White English-speaking people with a strong currency don't want to come here.

The mainstream press continues to discover Mike Huckabee. If he wins in Iowa, which the polls say is a possibility now, anything could happen. New Hampshire is one of the most secular states in the union -- the original settlers came here to get away from the Puritans in Massachusetts -- so an evangelical minister like Huckabee is not going to win the NH primary. But an Iowa loss would knock down Romney, who is leading in the NH polls, so you might well wind up with four or five guys all getting around 20% here. Then what happens? Meanwhile FireDogLake is past the who-is-Huckabee stage and is examining what he stands for and why you don't really want him to be president.

Continuing the evangelical theme, David Antoon takes a scary look at what has become of his alma mater, the Air Force Academy, and connects it with a larger pattern of evangelical activism in the military and in private armies like Blackwater: "The citizen-soldier military dictated by our founding fathers has been replaced with professional and mercenary right-wing Christian crusaders." In a related article, Mother Jones profiles Mikey Weinstein, another Air Force Academy graduate and former Air Force JAG, who started the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to fight exactly the problem Antoon is describing.

The Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity and Race has put out a report on the effects of an Indiana law requiring would-be voters to present a photo ID. And guess what? The people most likely to have such IDs are middle-aged white high-income voters -- who also turn out to be the target voters of the GOP. Kevin Drum opines that maybe Indiana's Republicans already knew this when they pushed for the law. And southwest Florida's News-Press finds similar results from a Republican-backed Florida law making it harder to register to vote: "More than 14,000 initially rejected — three-quarters of them minorities — didn't make it through that last set of hoops. Blacks were 6 1/2 times more likely than whites to be rejected at that step. Hispanics were more than 7 times more likely to be failed."

In honor of Thanksgiving, TPM put together "Testimony We Give Thanks For," a medley of the most embarrassing moments in Congressional hearings this year.

DailyKos' Bill in Portland responds to Karl Rove's remarks about the overall crudeness of liberal bloggers by prototyping a cuss-and-trade system, where all profane insults have to be balanced by offsetting polite comments.

Here's how you get signatures to put propositions on the ballot in California.

Recent developments in your right to privacy: The feds can use your cell phone to track you without showing probable cause.

TPM puts together video clips to contrast the fantasies about Fred Thompson's candidacy with the reality.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Next Week: Vacation

What Impressed Me This Week will not appear on November 19. Look for it again on November 26.

What Impressed Me This Week: Challenges to Democracy

How Not to Fix the Electoral College
Apparently the ballot initiative to give the Republican presidential candidate 20 or more of California's 55 electoral votes is back on track. In late September it looked like its promoters were giving up, but new money appeared at the end of October, and we should find out this month whether enough signatures have been collected to get the initiative onto the ballot in June.

Background: Currently, in every state but two, all the state's electoral votes go to the candidate who wins the popular vote in that state. In Nebraska and Maine (9 combined electoral votes), two votes go to the winner of the state, and one vote goes to the winner of the popular vote in each congressional district. Conceivably, a candidate who loses statewide could still pick up one electoral vote in Maine and two in Nebraska, though I don't remember it ever happening.

The proposal in question would convert California to the Nebraska/Maine system. Since California has become a very reliable blue state (Kerry won 54-44 in 2004), the most likely result is that the Republican candidate would get 20-plus electoral votes from California rather than none. That's equivalent to the Republicans winning a reliably blue state like Illinois.

What makes this initiative tricky is that it sounds good on the surface, but ends up working against the value it claims to promote. In any state that makes this change, electoral vote totals will more closely resemble the popular vote totals. Isn't that good?

Not exactly. The problem, of course, is that if you do it in California but nowhere else, you get the exact opposite result nationally: You significantly increase the likelihood that a Democrat might win the popular vote (as Gore did in 2000) but a Republican would take office. If the backers of this proposition actually wanted to fix the Electoral College, they'd borrow a trick the National Popular Vote Bill: That bill (in which each state that passes it promises to give its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote) only takes effect when it has been passed by enough states to represent an Electoral College majority. Fortunately, a recent poll indicates that the California proposition is unlikely to pass.

It's worth considering the general principle at work here, because it shows up often and is hard to capture in a simple slogan: It's the difference between random error and bias. Picture a football game whose referees make random errors that don't consistently favor either team. It would be better if they didn't make errors at all, but it would be worse if some infallible machine fixed all the mistakes that went against one team, while letting the bad calls against the other team stand. Such a machine would decrease the number of errors, but increase the bias. Imagine how hard it would be to argue against the machine: In each case where it intervenes, it does the right thing. But overall it transforms a flawed-but-fair system into an unfair system.

In politics the principle shows up in this form: Processes originally designed to do good things are applied in a biased way, and end up invoking the rhetoric of fairness to increase unfairness. So, for example, the Bush administration has changed the mission of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department so that it focuses on discrimination against already-powerful Christian groups rather than power-starved groups like blacks or the poor, or unpopular religions like Islam that face much more serious discrimination issues than Christianity does. The rhetoric of economic fairness is unleashed against the Estate Tax, which oppresses billionaire heirs and heiresses. When affirmative action causes a poor black student to get into college over better-qualified whites, you'll hear about it. But when Yale's legacy program admits a white aristocrat like George W. Bush over better-qualified minority candidates, you won't. Try to imagine a district attorney's attempt to railroad some black kids provoking the same outrage as the Duke lacrosse case. In short, our yearning for fairness is being invoked to fix any situation that unfairly handicaps the powerful.

I Know You're Sick of Hearing About Torture, But ...
The Senate approved Mike Mukasey as the new attorney general, without getting a clear answer to the question of whether he signs on to the Bush administration's bizarre and self-serving redefinition of the word torture. (Don't you long for the good old days, when it was outrageous for Clinton to redefine sex to exclude oral sex? It was another world.)

Glenn Greenwald points out the ridiculous behavior of Senate Democrats. Enough of them opposed Mukasey to sustain a fillibuster, but they didn't bother. Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein voted for Mukasey, although Schumer admitted that Mukasy was "wrong on torture -- dead wrong." I'll let Glenn react to that:
Marvel at that phrase: "wrong on torture." Six years ago, there wasn't even any such thing as being "wrong on torture," because "torture" wasn't something we debated. It would have been incoherent to have heard: "Well, he's dead wrong on torture, but . . . " Now, "torture" is not only something we openly debate, but it's something we do. And the fact that someone is on the wrong side of the "torture debate" doesn't prevent them from becoming the Attorney General of the United States. It's just one issue, like any other issue -- the capital gains tax, employer mandates for health care, the water bill -- and just because someone is "dead wrong" on one little issue (torture) hardly disqualifies them from High Beltway Office.
Here's something else to marvel at: Newsweek's On Faith page asked religious leaders the question "Can the use of torture ever be justified?" It wasn't unanimous. Former Nixon henchman Charles Colson is a religious leader now, having given his life to Jesus while in prison for his crimes. He finds "circumstances for an exception" to the moral obligation not to torture other human beings: "If a competent authority honestly believed that this was the only way to get information that might save the lives of thousands, I believe he would be justified."

Strangely, Colson finds no similar wiggle room for stem cell research. Competence and honesty and saving thousands doesn't justify anything here, because the issue is absolutely black and white:
Our greatest service as Christians is to do what we best do, that is, raise transcendent moral arguments. To sacrifice one person for the good of many can never be justified. Evil often masquerades as good; the worst atrocities are performed in the name of humanitarian causes. And we must press the logic of the utilitarian argument to its ultimate conclusion: Sacrificing one to benefit all soon makes all vulnerable.
I wonder what Colson thinks about using a bogus religious conversion to regain a platform for pushing your political ideas. Is there a transcendent moral argument against such a thing, or might there be circumstances for an exception?

Matthew Yglesias gives an example of a pattern I noted last month: Torture may not be good at getting people to tell you the truth, but if your goal is to get a false confession you can use to support your policies, it works great. On Balkinization, Marty Lederman tells a similar story about forcing a false confession, and then goes on to make an interesting legal point: In this case the FBI managed to get the court to seal not just the evidence of the case, but the accusations made by the plaintiff. "This is, I think, an ominous development -- the increasingly common notion that the government can insist that no one be permitted to publicly disclose what they know about how the government itself investigates crimes and terrorism, and how it treats those suspected of wrongdoing."

Keith Olbermann does one of his only-slightly-over-the-top "special comments" on torture here.

TPM Muckracker collects the video highlights of House committee hearings on torture. The best part starts around the 1 minute mark, with the testimony of an actual interrogator, Colonel Steve Kleinman.

Pakistan and Us
General Musharraf is now promising elections in January, which (apparently) makes everything all right.

This, in my view, is another example of the neo-conservative perversion of the idea of Democracy -- similar to what we have seen in Iraq. The traditional American ideal of "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" is completely foreign to the neo-conservative mind. Instead, elections are a totemic ritual by which you sprinkle the fairy-dust of Democracy onto your regime. So it doesn't matter if government secrecy prevents citizens from casting an informed vote, whether a free press examines the government's claims or just repeats them, whether anybody can check that your voting machines actually work, or even if the whole campaign takes place during a "state of emergency" in which journalists, lawyers, candidates, or anybody else can be jailed at the Leader's whim. As long as votes are cast and a winner is announced, you have a Democracy.

Scarecrow on Firedoglake makes the connection between Musharraf's policies in Pakistan and Bush's in America:
Nothing General Musharraf is doing to Pakistan is morally different from what Bush and Cheney have been doing, piece by piece, to America’s democratic principles and institutions. At best, we are dealing with matters of degree but not of kind. ... The Administration has worked tirelessly to convince Americans to believe they must give up their democratic values to fight terrorism, but from 9/11 forward, Bush has gotten it backwards. Instead, we have to give up our fear of terrorism to preserve our democratic values. Protect the Constitution and the rule of law, defend democratic values and institutions here, and provide an inspiration and support for those who struggle for them elsewhere.
Short Notes
If you're feeling too optimistic and need to do something to bring yourself down, read economist Joseph Stiglitz's "The Economic Consequences of George W. Bush" in the current Vanity Fair. Here's the gist, as I get it: At the end of the Clinton administration America faced economic challenges, but we had a budget surplus and a number of other resources that we could have brought to bear on those challenges. Well, by now we've pissed all those resources away on an insane war and on throwing a big tax-cut party for the rich. Our crumbling levies and bridges and dams (the ones that survive) are seven years older -- eight by the time the next president takes office. We're still not educating our children for the 21st century. We're losing our edge in basic research. But we've run up a huge debt already, so what can we do? Have a nice day, everybody.

A hoaxer announced a non-existent paper in a non-existent journal, claiming that global warming is a natural phenomenon unrelated to human activity. Just as naturally, the anti-global-warming folks jumped to promote it, including Rush Limbaugh -- because a transparently fake scientist who agrees with you is far more convincing than the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community.

On the blog Political Animal, Kevin Drum has been searching for the worst blog posts of all time. After consulting with his readers, he presents the five finalists for the Golden Wingnut Award. The winner is John Hinderaker of the blog Power Line, who wrote on July 28, 2005: "It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can't get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile." Congratulations, John. You must be very proud.

I'm not for Ron Paul, but if you want to understand the people who are, watch this video.

Even some conservatives are starting to catch on. George Will writes: "Republicans, supposed defenders of limited government, actually are enablers of an unlimited presidency. Their belief in strict construction of the Constitution evaporates, and they become, in behavior if not in thought, adherents of the woolly idea of a 'living Constitution.' They endorse, by their passivity, the idea that new threats justify ignoring the Framers' text and logic about shared responsibility for war-making."

Monday, November 05, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Was I Wrong About the Surge?

It's been an eventful week: Pakistan suspended it's constitution, the October casualty numbers came in even lower than September, and the legality of waterboarding was a big issue at the confirmation hearings for Attorney-General-to-be Mukasey.

Did the Surge Work?
I have been a consistent skeptic about the Surge. More troops means more targets means more casualties -- that's how I thought it out, and until recently that's how it went: 1164 coalition troops died during the 12 months ending in August 2007, making it the bloodiest year of the war. Then 69 troops died in September and only 40 in October. To get a lower two-month total you have to go back to February-March of 2006. Iraqi civilian casualties also appear to be down. What does it mean?

I've been slow to jump to any conclusions. On the one hand, I pride myself on belonging to the reality-based community -- when the facts change, my ideas have to change, and when my predictions don't pan out I have to re-examine the logic behind them. On the other hand, this administration has fooled me before by using short-term trends to dismiss long-term problems. In the winter of 2001-2002, when the Taliban government fell so quickly and (apparently) easily in Afghanistan, without the millions of civilian casualties that some on the Left had been predicting, I started giving the Bush people the benefit of the doubt. I dismissed the early rumors about Guantanamo. I tried hard to believe the claims that the Iraq invasion would be similarly easy and quick and clean. I took the administration position in a number of online arguments that I'd happily deny if not for the existence of archives. It wasn't until late in the summer of 2002 -- sooner, apparently, than Democratic senators like Clinton and Edwards and Kerry -- that I started to realize I'd been had.

So I've been cautious. I started telling you about the new data in the last week of September, but I haven't been drawing any firm conclusions. Partly that's because I see myself as a middleman in the interpretation business. I write this column for intelligent people who don't have the time or inclination to sift through as much of the online information as I do. (If my fellow news junkies like it too, that's fine.) But I'm not a universal expert, so in any individual field I rely on people that I trust in the same way that I hope my readers will learn to trust me. And my suppliers haven't been coming through lately, so my stock of explanations has been dwindling.

Until this week. One of the people I trust for military matters is Phillip Carter of the blog Intel Dump. He attributes the recent good news to a convergence of many factors. One is the Surge. In an article in Slate, Carter observes: "Where we have sufficient troops to control the ground, violence is down. ... But where we don't have sufficient troops ... violence remains high." But even the increased number of American troops is far short of what would be necessary to control the whole country. (A friend in the military tells me that current counter-insurgency doctrine estimates the number of troops needed at about three times what we have in Iraq now.) So our troops have to try to influence and catalyze events on the ground, not control them. That's what happened in Anbar: a political opportunity presented itself, and we took advantage of it. The Sunni tribes did the heavy lifting, but a more-visible American presence played a role.

In Baghdad, though, "the most persuasive explanation for the good news is that the Shiites have won." In other words, the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad is more-or-less over, so the sectarian violence has faded. This observation fits with my lone data point, which is that the Iraqi blogger Riverbend and her family left Baghdad for Damascus a few months ago. In her latest report, Riverbend quotes an estimate that 1.5 million Iraqis are in Syria now, and reports "Walking down the streets of Damascus, you can hear the Iraqi accent everywhere." A big chunk of those folks are probably, like Riverbend, Sunnis from Baghdad.

One other important thing happened, apparently by coincidence: After an embarrassing clash between Shia factions in the holy city of Karbala at the end of August, Shia militia leader Muqtada al Sadr declared a six-month moratorium on military activities so that he could reorganize and presumably purge some of the loose cannons in his organization.

The longer-term picture has Carter worried. To the extent that the lull is due to the Surge, what will happen next summer, when we can't sustain this troop level any more? To the extent that it's due to ethnic cleansing, do we really want to extend that policy to the entire country? What happens when al-Sadr is done reorganizing? And after the Anbar Sunnis have dealt with Al Qaeda Iraq, will they start singing the Muslim equivalent of Kumbaya, or will they turn their new American weapons against the Shia central government, or against us?

The original idea of the Surge was to create a temporary calm during which the Iraqi factions could work out their differences and create a lasting peace. The calm is happening (despite my expectations), but the peace is still nowhere in sight. The question we have to ask is: What larger success story is the Surge supposed to be part of? I don't think it's the kind of success the American people are looking for, one where we get to declare victory at some point in the foreseeable future and bring our troops home. Instead, it's a more imperial version of success: Our troops have become more important than ever in the maintenance of order in Iraq, and maybe we can hope to pacify the country completely over the next ten or twenty years.

To sum up: We've been bleeding slower the last two months. Fewer dead Americans. Fewer dead Iraqis. Those are good things. But don't get carried away and think that everything is on track now. The Bush policy for Iraq has multiple layers of wrongness in it, and improving one layer doesn't mean that everything is going to be OK. I still want our troops home as fast as we can safely bring them out.

Pakistan: Pop Goes the Constitution
One reason the rest of the world doesn't believe all the American pro-democracy rhetoric is that we support military dictators like General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. Since his first coup in 1999, Musharraf has allowed some of the trappings of democracy and the rule of law to re-appear. But Saturday he announced that he was suspending the Constitution and going back to one-man rule. Since 9/11, he has been one of our main allies in the War on Terror (at least on paper), and we've been content to let him restore democracy at his own pace. We've also been content, for reasons that escape me, to tolerate the Taliban and Al Qaeda having sanctuaries in Pakistan near the Afghan border.

OK, it makes no sense for me to try to compete with the major networks in covering a breaking story like this. But I will point you towards an information source you probably won't hear on ABC: Barnett Rubin of New York University, who is blogging the crisis from Islamabad via Juan Cole's Global Affairs. You can also look at the translated text of Musharraf's announcement -- and the video, if Urdu makes sense to you.

Rubin makes the following scary point: Musharraf's announcement echoes a lot of themes that you hear from the Bush administration. In particular, he claims to be declaring a state of emergency in order to protect Pakistan from terrorism and judicial activism -- as if those were comparable menaces. "Judicial activism" in this case means trying to hold the government accountable to the rule of law.

Rubin finds a similar linkage between judges and terrorists in the March 2005 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: “Our strength as a nation state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes, and terrorism.” Scott Horton of Harper's comments: "In other words, turning to courts for the enforcement of legal rights, appeals to international tribunals, and terrorism are seen as the elements of a single consistent enemy strategy."

Musharraf takes a page from the Bush/Cheney media guide:
Let us look at law enforcement agencies. In my view, they are demoralized - especially in Islamabad. They have given up hope. Why? Because their officers are being punished ... Ten officers - including two Inspector Generals - are suspended or convicted. And so, we have a demoralized force with low morale, afraid to take any action.
The rule of law, in other words, emboldens the terrorists.

The Borowitz Report comments via the following satirical news article: President Bush flies to Islamabad to advise Musharraf on the best ways to eliminate democracy. Describing Musharraf's announcement suspending the Pakistani constitution as a "beginner's mistake," Bush tells Musharraf "you've got to be crafty about these things."

TPM Josh Marshall interviewed Dr. Rubin at some length. One thing Rubin points out is that all the bogus stuff the Bush administration said about Iraq is actually true about Pakistan: Bin Laden is there, and they have nuclear weapons.

Waterboarding: It's Torture
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee tried and failed to get Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey to say that waterboarding is torture. Apparently this is not enough to keep the Senate from approving his nomination, but at least it pushed the media into explaining what waterboarding is. Sunday a former military lawyer wrote Waterboarding Used to Be a Crime in the Washington Post. It's worth a read.

On the Balkinization blog, Sandy Levinson looks at one particularly insidious corruption of the public debate: People (like Rudy Giuliani) using ticking-time-bomb fantasies to claim that water-boarding is not torture, when in fact they are arguing that torture is justified. If you find yourself in such a conversation with a co-worker or relative or friend, don't let them fudge things this way. If they want to defend torture, they should defend torture, not claim that something isn't torture because we need to do it.

I watched a fair and balanced panel of torture advocates on Fox News this week, all of whom talked in ticking-time-bomb terms. This is one of those cases where even entering into the discussion is a mistake. Once you start doing a cost/benefit analysis of torture, discussing how much torture you'd be willing to do for how much information, you've abandoned the idea that there's a moral principle here. I am reminded of an old joke: A rich old man chats up a pretty young woman at a party and asks if she'd sleep with him for a million dollars. She blushes and admits that yes, she probably would. Then he asks whether she'd sleep with him for five dollars, and she's insulted. "What kind of woman do you think I am?" she asks. And he answers: "We've already established that. Now we're just dickering over the price."

What To Read When You're Sick
I had a cold this week, with just enough of a fever to make any serious reading futile. So rather than tell you about a political or military or historical book, I'll give my recommendation for what to read the next time you're sick: Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman.

There's an old joke about old jokes: A group of people -- inmates, sailors on a long voyage, old guys who have been hanging around in the same bar forever, it varies from one telling to the next -- have been repeating the same jokes so often that they've all been written down and numbered. Rather than tell the joke, you just have to stand up and announce the number. (The punch line is that the new guy announces a number and nobody laughs. "That joke's hard to tell right," his friend explains.)

Well, maybe twenty years ago somebody -- probably Alan Moore, but I'm not completely sure -- realized that superhero stories had reached the same point. There are only so many viable powers and weaknesses, so many ways to explain where the powers come from, so many ways that the hero and the villain can relate to each other, and so on. You don't really even have to tell the story any more, you can just indicate which story this is. Now, as a writer you can fight this truth and struggle for any small innovation -- what would chartreuse kryptonite do? -- or you can run with it and have a lot of fun. If you just let the archetypes be archetypes and don't bother to innovate, the standard superhero universe becomes a rich and easily invoked background on which you can paint whatever you want.

In comic books, the best versions of this kind of story-telling are Kurt Busiek's Astro City and Alan Moore's Top Ten. Well, Soon I Will Be Invincible brings this style to novels. The book doesn't contain any character you've heard of, and yet everyone in it is extremely familiar. So, one of the two narrators is afflicted with Malign Hypercognition Disorder -- he's a evil genius. Most of his life has been spent on a series of nearly-successful attempts to take over the world. The other is a young woman who suffered a catastrophic accident and had most of her body parts replaced with super-powered machinery. She is the newest and most insecure member of the Champions, the world's greatest team of heroes. Don't you almost know them already?

That's the point. Everything happens inside a dense web of archetypal plots and relationships you already know. So the narrators can give you all kinds of backstory in just a couple of lines. For example, Doctor Impossible (the evil genius) concludes the story about how he met his ex-girlfriend (at a failed attempt to organize a team of super-villains) with this: "So the Legion never materialized as such, although a few of the robots later came back as the Machine Intelligence Coalition, which I guess still has its asteroid somewhere." That covers a lot of ground for one sentence, but how much more detail do you really need? It's Situation #47.

Short Notes
Max Blumenthal continues to attend right-wing conventions so that you don't have to. Check out his video Theocracy Now, in which he covers the Values Voters Summit in late October.

The week's best graphic comes from Daily Kos blogger Dreaminonempty, who assembles state-by-state polls on President Bush's approval rating and comes to the conclusion (now that Bush approval in Utah has fallen below 50%) that there are no red states.

Faking the news is harder than it looks. Slate V ran a competition for the best amateur news parodies, and the top five are here. They're fun, but the Daily Show has nothing to worry about.

Washington Monthly did a long article about Giuliani's Cheney-like view of executive power.

Studs Terkel explains why the telephone companies shouldn't get amnesty for their participation in warrantless wiretapping.