2008 09 04
Lies and Damn Lies

Posted by in: Math, Pundits, U.S. politics

(Note: I apologize for breaking Explananda with this post last night — I let my enthusiasm override my remembering-how-to-post.)

I suppose it’s fitting since my last post was right before the 2004 election, but I never thought my return would be about politics. Well, kind of.

For various reasons, including the interesting Obama/Clinton delegate math, I’ve been following this year’s election in greater detail than any in the past. Which, unfortunately, means I’ve been reading a lot of political articles. In the course of my travails I came across a particularly egregious example of the mis-use of statistics that got me worked up enough that I had to write about it somewhere. So here you go.

I found this in a post yesterday by Peggy Noonan at WSJ.com:

I’m bumping into a lot of critics who do not buy the legitimacy of small town mayorship (Palin had two terms in Wasilla, Alaska, population 9,000 or so) and executive as opposed to legislative experience. But executives, even of small towns, run something. There are 262 cities in this country with a population of 100,000 or more. But there are close to a hundred thousand small towns with ten thousand people or less. “You do the math,” the conservative pollster Kellyanne Conway told me. “We are a nation of Wasillas, not Chicagos.”

The worst thing is that this even passes the sniff test; 262 times 100,000 is way, way less than 100,000 times 10,000, so it does seem like there are more people living in small cities than big cities.

Except: the first alarm should go off when you look at the numbers for small cities. 100,000 times 10,000 is 1 billion, and the population of the US is just over 0.3 billion. And of course, when you actually get to the facts, you find that over 58% of the US lives in cities with over 200,000 people.

The trick is using a floor for the number you want to minimize, and a ceiling for the number you want to maximize. The counting in the quote above counts New York City as a city of 100,000, and counts Eastport, Maine (my ancestral home, population 1640) and many other towns with population under 1000 as cities of 10,000.

Another example of this fun statistical manipulation: only 1% of the US population has a household income of over $400,000, but over 50% of the population has a household income of under $50,000. Clearly, the evidence show that most of the wealth in the US lies in the hands of working families.

Howls of outrage (5)

2007 07 31
Caveat Brooks-Reader

Today David Brooks writes:

Edwards would create a million housing vouchers for working families. These would, he argues, ”enable people to vote with their feet to demand safe communities with good schools.” They’d help people move to where the jobs are and foster economic integration.

The problem with his approach is that past efforts at dispersal produced disappointing results. Families who were given the means to move from poor neighborhoods to middle-class areas did not see incomes rise. Girls in those families did a little better, but boys did worse. They quickly formed subcultures in the new communities that replicated patterns of the old ones. Male criminality rose, but test scores did not.

I wonder which studies he submitted to the NYT fact-checkers to support this claim? Here’s what I’ve read:

This has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) through its Moving To Opportunity (MTO) experiment, in which it was found that residents moving from poverty-stricken neighborhoods into more affluent areas saw positive health results. The MTO program was an ambitious experiment by HUD, building on the famous Gautreaux litigation and the emerging concept that deconcentrating poverty is the most efficient way to improve the lives of the poor. The Gautreaux families were dispersed throughout the Chicago area and when freed from the harms of concentrated poverty, they were much more likely to be employed, their children did better in school, and they were generally safer. (Myron Orfield, “Segregation and Environmental Justice” (pdf), Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology 147 (2005).

But Brooks tells me otherwise. What ever shall I believe?

UPDATE: Thanks to Aaron in the comments for pointing to this post by Ezra Klein in which Klein praises this Brooks column. Klein points to this set of studies on the Moving to Opportunity program that seems to confirm some of Brooks’s worries. It does appear that the results from Gautreaux were more promising in many ways than were those for MTO. Indeed, MTO was inspired by the successes of Gautreaux, which are listed summarily by Orfield in the quotation I provided in the original post.

The researchers are still unsure, but they suggest that the differences between Gautreaux and MTO may be the result of the fact that Gautreaux was a court-ordered deconcentration of poverty for certain designated families, whereas MTO involved families chosen by random assignment.

In any case, there are three follow-up points I’d like to make.

First, the results of MTO are still good. It’s not that girls do so much better and that boys regress. The finding is “that boys in the experimental group fared no better or worse on measures of risk behavior than their controlgroup counterparts.” And while the experimental groups do not seem to have fared better economically–something that is truly puzzling–all studies point to a general enhancement of mental health for participants. The researchers that Klein cites conclude, “These adult mental health benefits may have important spillover benefits, particularly to children, since children have been found to have more problems in school and more behavior problems when their mothers are experiencing mental health problems.” The moral is that it is not at all clear that the benefits associated with Gautreaux and MTO, especially the mental health benefits, would be inferior tools in the fight against poverty when compared with the face-to-face counseling that Brooks favors. There does not seem to be enough data to compare these, so the results of MTO and the promised results of projects like the Harlem Children’s Zone do not seem capable of making the case for Obama and against Edwards.

Second, Gautreaux and MTO relied on the use of housing vouchers to re-situate participant families, and it is likely that if more sweeping legislation were to be drawn up, it would involve an expansion of the Section 8 housing voucher program. However, a recent case in Maryland County Court may work its way up the judicial ladder–or spawn similar rulings in other states–and undermine the voucher program. Ruling that Montgomery County cannot force a landlord to accept the vouchers, County Circuit Judge Durke G. Thompson wrote “Simply put, the county cannot force the landlord to enter into a contract with the federal government where the landlord is unable to negotiate the terms. That is beyond the scope of the county’s power.” If the conservative courts, especially the Supreme Court, gets ahold of this case, it could be curtains for what Brooks is labeling the Edwards plan.

Lastly, there is something that Edwards has that Obama does not, and that is a freedom from Robert Rubin and the Clinton wing of the Democratic party. Rubin (among others) advised Clinton to shove NAFTA down the throats of Clinton’s base before tackling health care–thereby emptying labor unions’ lobbying coffers even before the fight for universal health care began. There have been reports of Obama’s connections to Rubinomics, including his support for the new centrist Hamilton Project. It is not at all clear whether Obama is willing to use the power of the federal government to invest in poor communities and, even more importantly, move toward a full employment that puts the breaks on trade agreements that undermine poor and middle class American families.

Despite entering the fray of inter-Democratic party politics, Brooks’s line is the standard conservative line: blame the “culture of poverty” that pervades Black communities and impedes economic success. This is why he likes the face-to-face aspect he claims to find in the Obama-preferred Harlem Children’s Zone. But this culture of poverty argument was put decisively to rest by Algernon Austin and Jared Bernstein in response to similar causal arguments forwarded recently by Bill Cosby. Austin and Bernstein write:

Black poverty fell 10.6 percentage points from 1993 to 2000 (from 33.1 to 22.5 percent) to reach its lowest level on record. Black child poverty fell an unprecedented 10.7 percentage points in five years (from 41.9 percent in 1995 to 31.2 percent in 2000).

The “culture of poverty” argument cannot explain these trends. Poor black people did not develop a “culture of success” in 1993 and then abandon it for a “culture of failure” in 2001.

What really happened was that in the 1990s, the job market finally tightened up to the point where less-advantaged workers had a bit of bargaining clout. The full-employment economy offered all comers opportunities conspicuously absent before or since.

Right now, if you want to bet on an economic policy that would support movements toward sustainable full employment–the Clinton boom of the 1990s, while reducing poverty, was generated by the stock market bubble which eventually burst to the detriment of many–then you bet on Edwards. Even without the tools used in Gautreuax and MTO, Edwards’s policy bag includes major economic policy tools that make conservatives like Brooks, and neoliberals like Rubin, shudder. The ills of poverty cannot be successfully fought with location-specific programs such as those favored by conservatives like Brooks. In fact, this is precisely why conservatives like Brooks favor such policies. They want to blame Black culture and take the focus off grander economic causes. Then, when face-to-face counseling for those in poverty fails to eliminate the ills of living in concentrated poverty, they can throw up their hands, having already dispatched the arguments in favor of more radical and sweeping measures.

While I’m still more confident that Edwards is more willing to buck the Clintonite/Rubin anti-populism in favor of moving toward sustainable full employment, there are heartening developments in the Obama camp. So I’m remaining open-minded. Obama is still very much a work in progress. But until he commits fully to rejecting Rubinomics–which means rejecting the austere and ineffective policy menu that Brooks claims to find in Obama’s proposals–I’ll stick with Edwards.

Howls of outrage (5)

2007 07 17

Bill O’Reilly likens Kos to David Duke and the Nazis, and says that it’s real easy to regulate online forums. He says boycotts etc. are called for. I’m sure it’s been noted somewhere else, but I’ve not seen it: NewsCorps owns Fox News. It also owns Myspace. You wanna make O’Reilly pay? A good place to start is right here.

Howls of outrage (2)

2007 04 12
Civility and political discourse, again

I alluded to this issue at the tail end of another post the other day, but it’s still rattling around in my head, so perhaps writing about it again will properly dislodge it: I occasionally get a bit ticked off when I see complaining about the lack of civility on blogs. Now, there are a lot of blogs that seems to me out of line – enough so that they discredit themselves with me and I just don’t bother to go back. And I can also see plenty of good reasons to try to keep political debate civil. People who are arguing in good faith are unlikely to be persuaded by a rude interlocutor. People are complex too: people with obnoxious political views often have other valuable and morally worthy qualities, and there are certain forms of incivility that write off people as a whole, inappropriately. Honest people have honest disagreements about political issues, and that’s compatible with mutual respect. And so on.

But, but, but. When I see journalists whining about the nasty, nasty bloggers, I often feel that they’re putting a whole lot of emphasis on form at the expense of substance. This is what I was getting at the other day when I pointed out that Krauthammer might not use bad words in his columns but the content is downright nasty. I suppose at this point I might try to co-opt the civility talk and point out that, for example, proposing to continue the occupation of a country against the wishes of the occupied is itself a bit rude, but it’s so many other worse things besides that that even seeing things put this way should jar us out of a too narrow focus on civility. Krauthammer regularly (and influentially) proposes courses of action that are criminal and murderous; bloggers curse about his columns. How about some perspective about the respective norms being violated here?

It’s worth recalling that although politics often looks and feels like a game to the people who are engaged in it and comment on it, at the end of the day it really isn’t. When we engage in political debate about health care in the U.S., we are literally trying to figure out whether people will die for preventable reasons. When we engage in political debate about the Iraq War, we are talking about the fates of millions of people. At some level everyone knows this, but a certain Broderesque fastidiousness about the norms of civility in political discourse often seems to go along with the tendency to think of it as a game which one plays in columns and television chat shows.

So the stakes are high, and people on opposite sides of many political debates have very good reasons to be upset with one another. But it’s important to add to this that many of the disputants in the op-ed wars are lazy, stupid and dishonest. They really are. David Brooks is just fucking stupid. Charles Krauthammer and I don’t have an honest disagreement about the Middle East. He’s a liar who peddles bad arguments for a living, in defense of policies which get innocent people killed. At a certain point, with a certain sort of interlocuter, you have to give up and admit that you think they’re arguing in bad faith for morally reprehensible ends. And I wonder sometimes if the Broderesque calls for civility from journalists and professional pundits is really a plea to stop treating them with the disrespect they so richly deserve. A large part of the point of civility is to make reasonable political discourse possible, but with pundits of this sort (and some high profile bloggers) there’s no hope for reasonable political discourse anyway, and the only thing left to do is expose them to as much public ridicule as possible.

I admit this is all a bit vague and not terribly well-thought through. A better post would have tried to say more about different kinds of civility and incivility, since I’m probably running together different forms that could be usefully distinguished. And since I start off admitting that certain forms of incivility bother me, I really ought to say a bit more about how I distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable form of incivility. Finally, I suspect some of what I’ve written may conflict with my admission above that people with obnoxious political views can have other morally admirable qualities. I’m not sure, so anyone who has an opinion about this is invited to make it known in the comments.

Howls of outrage (9)

2007 04 02
Blogs and journalism

Posted by in: Political issues, Pundits

Linda Hirshman writes:

What interests me about the political effect of the blogosphere is something that divides the society into even smaller pieces than Sunstein fears, which is what I call the autobiography problem–the personal experience of the blogger becomes an unassailable source of information about the world. No amount of survey data, statistical analysis, or any other more conventional sources of fact can survive inconsistency with the blogger’s own “personal” experience. George Will, whose views I do not normally agree with, made the point when asked about the blogosphere on George Stephanopolous’s “This Week.” “Humph [or some such Will mannerism],” he said. “So much of what is done on the web is people getting on there and writing their diaries as though everyone ought to care about everyone’s inner turmoils.”

It’s perfectly reasonable to point out that personal experience isn’t a substitute for hard sociological data, and that arguments which tend to conflate the two aren’t good arguments. But any decent writer knows this, and the blogs I read don’t make this mistake. Even when the subject matter is personal, the writers almost always know when it’s appropriate to clearly distinguish between anecdote and data. And when properly qualified, there is a place for confessional or highly personal writing. We learn from that sort of writing in some of the same ways that we learn from a decent novel.

How about a new rule: Any journalist who wants to generalize about bloggers should include a list of the blogs he or she regularly reads. I really think most of the nonsense I read from journalists about blogs is a function of their really not knowing their way around the medium.

Also, this sort of thing would be a lot easier to take from a journalist if it were combined with a bit of critical self-awareness about just how much journalism is a thinly veiled version of the same thing that disturbs her in blogs. I have in mind here silly trend stories of the sort we see in the NYT and WaPo all the time, many of which appear to be drawing examples from the writer’s own extended social circle. And it also comes up even more blatantly in a lot of other pieces of sociologically oriented journalism.

Hirshman concludes her piece by lamenting that Ann Althouse’s blogging credentials got her a column or two in the NYT. The point seems to be that the low, low quality of Althouse’s contributions just shows up the hollowness of blog-credentials, as if Althouse wasn’t also a professor at a decent law school. Actually, I agree wholeheartedly with Hirshman that Althouse didn’t deserve the gig, but as awful as Althouse is it’s hardly the case that she’s bringing down the average quality of an otherwise all-star cast. The quality of the NYT Op-Ed page is actually extremely low, and on any given day you can find more stimulating, amusing, and informed commentary by reading, for example, Blood and Treasure, Brad DeLong, Bradford Plumer, Crooked Timber, Steve Laniel, Unqualified Offerings, and Matthew Yglesias. (Notice, too, that last time I checked, Mr. David I-do-sloppy-pop-sociology-24-7 Brooks was still cast in a starring role on the NYT Op-Ed page. Why isn’t his mediocrity taken to be symptomatic of larger failures in journalism?)

This reminds me a bit of the complaint you often hear from journalists about bloggers being big, mean people who use mean, hurtful words. But whenever I hear this from, say, someone at the WaPo I wonder if they read someone like Charles Krauthammer. I mean, seriously. Dude. That guy is nasty. He doesn’t use bad words in the way that big, scary, mean Atrios does, but at the end of the day I wonder how much difference this really makes when we’re talking about civility and decency.

Howls of outrage (2)

2007 03 26
And you want to lecture people on balance?

Michael Walzer, long-time fan of my work, has an exchange with a critic in a recent edition of Dissent Magazine about Walzer’s attitude to Israel. I’m not familiar enough with Walzer’s recent writings on Israel to judge the critic’s case, but I can’t help noticing that Walzer’s response is not very strong.

Walzer gets off to a bad start with his take on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Perhaps the low point of this part of the discussion is when Walzer ties himself in knots trying to argue that Israel’s behaviour, “however much one criticizes the harshness” is “reactive.” Since Walzer sternly condemns the occupation, and the long, sordid history of illegal land-theft and collective punishment, the reader can only wonder how this is supposed to be a useful description of matters in the occupied territories, or indeed what exactly it would take, on Walzer’s view, for Palestinian violence to similarly qualify as “reactive.”

As it happens, I’m much more sympathetic to Walzer’s view of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute than I am to his reading of the Second Lebanon War of last summer. As in any war, the ambitions and intentions on both sides were fairly complex. But I think your head needs to have been pretty far up your ass last summer not to notice that one important aim of Israeli policy was to try to drive a wedge between Hezbollah and the rest of Lebanon by inflicting a high level of suffering on Lebanese civilians.

Walzer admits that “[s]ome Israeli strategists certainly hoped that the punishment of the civilian population would have a good political effect,” adding that “others warned that it almost certainly would not.” But again, it certainly seemed at the time the civilian and military officials calling the shots were following the advice of the first group of strategists. I doubt that these strategists were right, but I’ll leave it better informed people to make the final call on that. Moral judgment, in this case, is a bit less complex: Inflicting massive suffering on Lebanese civilians in order to apply pressure indirectly on Hizbollah was wrong, for all the same reasons that blowing up civilians in pizza shops or crowded buses in order to effect changes in Israeli policy is wrong.

Walzer makes a few other points that are, to my mind, pretty weak. But don’t take it from me. You can read Walzer’s response yourself, and make up your own mind. My point here is just to report an impression: Walzer’s response bears a very strong resemblance to the lame “yes, but” style of apologetics for Palestinian terrorism that Walzer has little difficulty seeing through. I certainly don’t envy Israel its enemies, and I also think that sorting through the moral complexities of modern Middle Eastern politics is a demanding job for even the most fair-minded philosopher. But Walzer, it’s pretty clear, isn’t that philosopher.

Anyway, notice the moment of unintentional comedy at the end of Walzer’s response when Walzer complains about his critic’s attempt to distinguish him from his friend, Martin Peretz. If I were trying to establish my impartiality on the issue of Israel, I don’t think I would want to go out of my way to associate myself with Peretz, of all people.

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2007 02 12
What to do about Iran

Spencer Ackerman is losing arguments:

A few weeks ago, I found myself drunkenly arguing with a conservative journalist about the wisdom of a war with Iran. It didn’t go well for me. The unshakable response went roughly as follows: It’s not us declaring war on them. They have declared war on us. They attack our troops. Your position amounts to requiring soldiers in a firefight to check the nationalities of their assailants before returning fire; and so you have reached absurdity. Victory is mine.

I’m not convinced Ackerman needed to lose that argument. The clever who-started-it rhetorical strategy looks great until you figure that the U.S. has been more provocative with Iran than Iran is accused of being with the U.S. so far.* But set that aside for a moment. The fact is this: Regardless of who started it, the U.S. simply can’t afford a conflict with Iran now. It just can’t. An invasion isn’t on the table, and even if the U.S. bombs the shit out of Iran, the best case scenario is a diplomatic disaster for the U.S. and a major set back in its anti-nuclear proliferation — excuse me, anti-bad-country nuclear proliferation — initiatives. The worst case is that Iran actually does get serious about meddling in Iraq and gets many U.S. soldiers killed there.

No. There’s nothing to do but diplomacy, even if everything alleged about Iran is true. And if not diplomacy, here’s some advice for U.S. policymakers: Just shut the fuck up about Iran. Since you really have your hands tied, and you don’t want to look weak, the best thing to do is to pretend that Iran isn’t supplying arms to insurgent groups in Iraq, since making a big stink about it and then getting nowhere makes you look even weaker than you otherwise would. So shut the fuck up. This is, by the way, what the rest of the world does in the face of provocations it can’t afford to respond to. Welcome to weakness, U.S. pundits and politicians. I know, it sucks.

Ackerman describes his debating partner as a conservative, but I take it that that’s a misleading label for “militarist,” since there’s absolutely nothing conservative about pushing for war with Iran. I think the appropriate response to a militarist who thinks that Iran has given the U.S. a clear casus belli is to say that it’s too bad then that the President has maneuvered the country into a strategic position so dire that it can’t afford to respond to a clear casus belli. But that’s how bad things are now. This is what serious strategic defeat looks like. So it’s time to make the best of it and shut the fuck up. Also crucial at this juncture: shutting the fuck up. In conclusion, pretty please shut the fuck up.

*Prediction: The next ten years will see a trickle of news reports about various naughty U.S. doings in Iran, including covert operations and support for groups opposed to the government. This will confirm and extend the impression created by the trickle of news reports to this effect which have come out over the last few years.

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2007 01 30
Arar, again

This piece by Dahlia Lithwick makes it sound as if the Bush administration has taken the stand it has on the Arar case because it doesn’t like admitting mistakes. But my understanding is that whatever official made the decision to have Arar sent to Syria broke U.S. law in doing so. If the United States applied its own laws to its own government officials, then someone – probably someone high up – would be in serious trouble. There’s not much chance of that happening, of course, but that’s a much better reason to try to avoid discussing the case than simply wanting the better of an argument. If I’m wrong about that, please do let me know in the comments.

By the way, in the video linked to in the last post, Gonzales has this little smirk on his face, as if to say, “Oh you better be careful not to walk too far out on the plank on this one. I know something you don’t. Arar is a nasty fellow.” Now it’s doubtful that Gonzales will tell Leahy more than the Canadian government already knows, and the Canadian government is convinced of Arar’s innocence. But suppose for a moment that Arar is one violent little jihadist, masquerading as a mild-mannered computer programmer. My understanding, again, is that sending him to Syria knowing full well that he would be tortured was against U.S. law. In other words, Gonzales should really just go fuck himself.

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2007 01 17
Dream on

This column by Fred Kaplan at Slate isn’t very good. Kaplan’s basic idea is that Condoleezza Rice’s backpedaling from previous rhetoric about democracy and human rights in Egypt shows that she has woken up from a “dream.”

In her 2005 speech, Rice famously said, “For 60 years, my country … pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region … and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.” But now, less than two years later, the region teeters on the edge of the abyss like at no time in recent history, and Rice suddenly sees there’s value in stability after all.

Kaplan goes on to contrast Rice’s pre-9/11 realism with her subsequent rhetoric on the subject of Egypt and human rights. He describes her words from the dream period as “a relic of stunning innocence.”

I’m all for bashing the Bush administration, but in the course of attempting to do so I think Kaplan’s article perpetuates the idea that there was something sincere about this aspect of the Bush administration’s rhetoric in the first place. That seems to me a wildly charitable reading of the last few years. There have been a few sporadic and half-hearted gestures couched in the language of freedom and democracy, but setting those aside you might even call hypocrisy on this issue one of the great unifying themes of Bush’s foreign policy.

Anyway, this is irritating. It’s irritating because it lets so much dishonest rhetoric from the Bush administration in the past few years go unchallenged. You wouldn’t guess from Kaplan’s article that, aside from springing a high-profile dissident or two, the U.S. used essentially none of its leverage with Egypt to produce meaningful change throughout the period in which Bush’s democracy rhetoric was trumpeted most vigorously. Or that the U.S. worked together with Egypt in the extraordinary rendition and torture of terror suspects during the same period. You would think from reading the Kaplan article that Rice’s shift in rhetoric actually marks a shift in policy. This is criticism that skims the surface; in some ways, it’s worse than no criticism at all.

Faced with a record of someone who talks like a “realist” (a horrible label, but I’ll use it) for most of her career, adopts idealistic language for a while during which time she participates in policies which mostly belie that rhetoric, and then reverts to “realism”, Kaplan decides that the intervening period of rhetorical idealism shows a “stunning innocence.” I think the more reasonable assumption is that it shows a stunning cynicism, or, to be absurdly generous, a stunning degree of self-deception. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine in what ways Kaplan’s read on the situation is stunning.

Contrary to what Kaplan implies, cynically propping up pro-American dictators and human rights abusers is not the only alternative to delivering hypocritical sermons about democracy and freedom while at the same time propping up pro-American dictators and human rights abusers. There is another way, but it includes a fundamental reform of U.S. goals in the world and in the sorts of compromises it’s willing to make in the pursuit of those goals.

Howls of outrage (2)

2007 01 12
Iraq War punditry

Then and now.


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2006 12 10
Foreign policy elites ponder Iraq

The short format of this little forum really doesn’t allow much room for the contributors to develop their ideas. I gather, however, from what little they do say that a more expansive format wouldn’t have helped much. For me, it’s useful mainly as a way of documenting a) how bad a job the NYT opinion page does of representing a real range of foreign policy opinion; b) how truly fucked Iraq and the U.S.’s Iraq policy is now.

I’ve been too busy to take a close look at events or much commentary recently, but in the last week or so I’ve been coming to terms with the likelihood that the U.S. really is going to be forced out of Iraq, in a bloody, chaotic, and humiliating retreat. I hadn’t been able to accept that before. I could see a civil war coming a long way off, but not that the U.S. would be forced into a large-scale retreat. But consider: Any progress will lead to a renewal of larger ambition; any setback will be considered a further reason to dig in and stay. And so it will go until a mass uprising basically blows the whole thing to shit and the U.S. has to fight its way out of the country.

Howls of outrage (4)

2006 12 02
Coalition of the grudging

Jacob Weisberg calls for a “coalition of the grudging” – NATO, plus perhaps Jordan and Turkey – to bail out the U.S. in Iraq. Weisberg is absolutely right that lots of other countries have an interest in seeing Iraq avoid a complete collapse into civil war. But his plan is a non-starter, and he should know it. Everybody knows at this point that the Bush administration would never give up real control of any outside effort in Iraq. Or if it did, it would only be long enough for things to get back on track, at which point it would be back to trying to use Iraq to project American power to advance American interests. There is simply no way that other countries or institutions are going to pour blood and money into the project of advancing American hegemony. We’ve been here before: The U.N. was originally in Iraq, and I think the lesson was lost on no one that it paid dearly in lives for, essentially, the chance to provide a very thin veneer of legitimacy to the botched conquest of one country by another. This is the way that U.S. has structured the strategic dilemma here, and it’s very hard to see how it could restructure it at this point.

At any rate, notice that the interests of the relevant countries are complex, as always. No one wants Iraq to stay a mess or do worse for its own sake. But here’s something else that must be figuring into everyone’s calculations: The more badly the U.S. gets burned in Iraq, the less likely it is to pull this shit on anyone else in the future. Unfortunately, the U.S. isn’t the only country in the world that looks to see other countries punished or deterred by policies it doesn’t like. These countries also have an interest in making sure that every subsequent major U.S. foreign policy decision for years to come is made with Iraq firmly in mind.

Since the situation in Iraq is already so bad that the coalition of the grudging would likely fail anyway, and since success would inevitably bring with it a) a renewal of the U.S.’s original ambitions for the war, and b) a mitigation of the deterrence effect thus far achieved by the U.S.’s failure in Iraq . . . well, how likely is this?

I also note that Weisberg doesn’t mention international opinion polling to gauge what the support for such a plan might be like. If he had done so, and reflected on the fact that most of the countries in the proposed coalition are democracies, he might well have spared us this foolish column. (In Canada, support for the mission in Afghanistan is shaky. How plausible, then, to think that Canadians will be happy to lend soldiers to fight and die in these circumstances?)

Next plan, please.

Howls of outrage (4)

2006 07 19
What to do? What to do?

Confused about how to stop the carnage in the Middle East? It’s actually pretty simple. Take it away, Charlie K!

The road to a solution is therefore clear: Israel liberates south Lebanon and gives it back to the Lebanese.

It starts by preparing the ground with air power, just as the Persian Gulf War began with a 40-day air campaign. But if all that happens is the air campaign, the result will be failure. Hezbollah will remain in place, Israel will remain under the gun, Lebanon will remain divided and unfree. And this war will start again at a time of Hezbollah and Iran’s choosing.

Just as in Kuwait in 1991, what must follow the air campaign is a land invasion to clear the ground and expel the occupier. Israel must retake south Lebanon and expel Hezbollah. It would then declare the obvious: that it has no claim to Lebanese territory and is prepared to withdraw and hand south Lebanon over to the Lebanese army (augmented perhaps by an international force), thus finally bringing about what the world has demanded — implementation of Resolution 1559 and restoration of south Lebanon to Lebanese sovereignty.

It must be difficult for deep thinkers like Krauthammer to distill so much wisdom into the short space of a newspaper column. Still, I can’t help wishing he had some opportunity (a blog?) to unpack this argument a bit for the squeamish. To pick the obvious difficulty here, I wonder if expelling Hezbollah from Lebanon might be harder to actually do than it is for Krauthammer to dream up and set down in words. How much harder? Hmmmmm, here’s where it would be helpful to have Mr. K explain why this time would be easier than last time. You know, with an argument. The deep integration of Hezbollah into the South of Lebanon means that expelling it would require a massively bloody, protracted military campaign with widespread civilian carnage and destruction of property, so Krauthammer can’t possibly have that in mind, can he?

But there I go doubting again. And you know, that’s the real problem here. It’s not that the roots of the problem go far deeper than Hezbollah, or that more energetic and far less scrupulous killing would have effects difficult to contain, some easily forseeable and some not. It’s that doubters lack will:

Only two questions remain: Israel’s will and America’s wisdom.

That, in a nutshell, is the American right’s response to most doubts about the prudence of its policy prescriptions: the problem is not with the conflict between the prescription and reality, but rather between reality and our own hearts. Root out all doubt and the rest will follow . . . just as it did in Iraq, where schools are being painted as we speak and children of all faiths join hands and sing pro-American songs all the live long day.

Howls of outrage (4)

2006 06 14
Hitchens and Zahawie

Posted by in: Political issues, Pundits

Wow. Wonder if it’s real.

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2006 05 15
Renowned journalist Mark Steyn staggered through an unoriginal review

Posted by in: Pundits

Steyn: Not very original.

UPDATE: and see further.


A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)