Tuesday, August 31, 2004



One theme of William Faulkner’s writings – and many other modernists – was a skepticism of language. Much of the modernists’ thought was influenced by a Swiss linguist named Ferdinand de Saussure, who explained that language or “linguistic signs” very often have no connection with concrete reality. He wrote:

The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image. The latter is not the material sound, a purely physical thing, but the psychological imprint of the sound, the impression that it makes on our senses.

This concept of the arbitrary or even imaginary connection between language and the real world was a prominent theme in Faulkner’s best and most accessible novel, As I Lay Dying. I thought about this book when I listened to Giuliani’s speech last night, which consisted – like so much of the GOP campaign – of pretty-sounding, emotion-stirring words with no connection to reality. As Saletan explained today, Giuliani’s speech was only good if you are too ignorant to know that it was filled with dishonesty and mischaracterizations, which is not even to mention the repeated child-like appeals to mindless raw emotion. Anyway, it reminded me of the central passage in As I Lay Dying where Addie (the mother) utters her famous skepticism of words and language. Here are a few excerpts:

And when I knew that I had Cash [her son], I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned words are not good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn't care whether there was a word for it or not.
. . .

He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others; just a shape to fill a lack.
. . .

And so when Cora Tull would tell me I was not a true mother, I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forgot the words.

We’re going to be hearing a great deal about abstractions such as freedom, and about how Bush should be re-elected in the name of meaningless abstract platitudes. When you hear these things, you might recall Hemingway’s famous line from A Farewell to Arms, which strikes the same note of skepticism about language in the face of cold reality:

Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

And that brings me back to Rudy. His words on Iraq, though pretty, were obscene beside the reality developing in places like Ramadi. Here’s a juxtaposition of Rudy’s words and Sunday’s NYT (which gives you a foreshadowing of what will happen if we lose the war for the soul of the Middle East). Here's Rudy:

But the reasons for removing Saddam Hussein were based on issues even broader than just the presence of weapons of mass destruction. To liberate people, give them a chance for accountable, decent government and to rid the world of a pillar of support for global terrorism is nothing to be defensive about. It's something for which all those involved, from President Bush to the brave men of our armed services, should be proud. They did something wonderful. They did something that history will give them great credit for.

And here’s the NYT:

Both of the cities, Falluja and Ramadi, and much of Anbar Province, are now controlled by fundamentalist militias . . . American efforts to build a government structure around former Baath Party stalwarts - officials of Saddam Hussein's army, police force and bureaucracy who were willing to work with the United States - have collapsed. Instead, the former Hussein loyalists, under threat of beheadings, kidnappings and humiliation, have mostly resigned or defected to the fundamentalists, or been killed. Enforcers for the old government, including former Republican Guard officers, have put themselves in the service of fundamentalist clerics. . . . The militants' principal power center is a mosque in Falluja led by an Iraqi cleric, Abdullah al-Janabi, who has instituted a Taliban-like rule in the city, rounding up people suspected of theft and rape and sentencing them to publicly administered lashes, and, in some cases, beheading.

The same is true for almost everything the GOP will claim this week – they will describe the world in simplified abstractions that appeal only to emotion and what people want to believe, not to reality. Afghanistan is almost lost to the warlords. The Taliban is regrouping. Iraq is on its way to becoming a failed state dominated by fundamentalist clerics. We are losing the war on terror. The economy is in horrible shape. But none of that really matters – all that matters is that that Bush projected leadership on Ground Zero. Emotion over reality – that’s what’s required to rule as King in Fantasyland. Just ask Rudy:

From the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, to President George W. Bush, our party's great contribution is to expand freedom in our own land and all over the world.

And then T.S. Eliot:

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scoling, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them

Burnt Norton

THOUGHTS ON THE CONVENTION - The Question of "Resolve" 


Ok – I’m officially sick of the convention. This really might be my last post on it until Bush’s speech Thursday night. The whole thing is designed for children. More precisely, it’s designed for people whose understanding of the world and current events barely rises above that of a child’s. I’m not saying the Democratic convention was much different, but good God, does democracy in America really consist of nothing more than mindless appeals to raw emotion and simplistic concepts better suited for a kindergarten storybook? The entire night – from the 9/11 widows to Giuliani’s endless sappy invocations of September 11th – was nothing more than an appeal to fear and anger over 9/11. It was 100% pathos, and 0% logos. I suppose I need to become resigned to the fact that American politicians in the TV age will never even attempt to appeal to the intellect. But even so, it makes it very hard to write any sort of substantive post when the speeches are devoid of all substance. But I’ll try.

First, it’s pretty clear that the Republicans are going to work very hard to frame (or perhaps "reduce" is a better word) the debate on the war on terror (national security, Iraq, etc.) to a question of "resolve" and “leadership.” For example, Giuliani offered the following contrast:

And in times of war and danger, as we're now in, Americans should put leadership at the core of their decision. There are many qualities that make a great leader. But having strong beliefs, being able to stick with them through popular and unpopular times, is the most important characteristic of a great leader.

John McCain added:

For his determination to undertake it and for his unflagging resolve to see it through to a just end, President Bush deserves not only our support, but our admiration.

You can see the battle lines pretty clearly. The GOP – with aid from its media allies – will be attempting to make the national security debate a debate about resolve, and about the will to “stay the course," rather than focusing on anything substantive. To make this work, they have to do two things: (1) present Bush as a man of firm convictions and resolve (in Wizard of Oz-style fashion); and (2) present Kerry as a man who lacks resolve and firm convictions. It’s not a bad strategy so long as Americans remain ignorant about terrorism, national security, and Iraq – which means it’s probably not a bad strategy.

To be blunt, Kerry can’t win this debate. It’s unfair – especially the idea that Bush’s stubborn “gut-based” decisions that are based on nothing should be considered “firm convictions” – but it’s true. [Broder had a good article questioning Bush’s “resolve” yesterday.] Many voters’ perceptions on these matters are now firmly rooted in reverse-black holes of ignorance (no light can enter, but light escapes quickly). Because Kerry can’t win this debate, he must avoid it altogether – he must sidestep the linguistic trap that awaits him if he tries to fight it out on whether Bush has more resolve.

There’s actually an easy way to do this. Concede the point. Obviously, don’t concede that you’re a French-loving atheist flip-flopper. But concede that Bush has the resolve necessary to win the war on terror and the war in Iraq. Then, move the goalposts on him. Explain that the real question isn’t whether Bush has the will, the question is whether he knows the way. Resolve is actually counterproductive if you’re firmly resolved to drive off a cliff. Andrew Sullivan of all people said it pretty well yesterday:

The deeper question, however, is: do we have confidence in this administration's competence (not will) to conduct the war effectively and bring it toward victory?

Kerry should move the debate from resolve to competence. In other words, he should explain that Bush is firmly resolved to a path that is hurting America, losing the war on terror, losing Iraq, wrecking the economy, and preventing scientific progress. Let the GOP waste their time all week arguing about how much resolve Bush has. Then, change the debate to competence at the same time you assert that Bush’s resolve is his biggest flaw. William Saletan nailed this point in an excellent Slate article a while back entitled “Confidence Man: The Case for Bush is the Case Against Him.” I highly recommend this article. In general, people should not respond to attacks on Kerry by pointing out Bush’s flip-flops. They should instead use Bush’s own words against him. Saletan writes:

From foreign to economic to social policy, Bush's record is a lesson in the limits and perils of conviction. He's too confident to consult a map. He's too strong to heed warnings and too steady to turn the wheel when the road bends. He's too certain to admit error, even after plowing through ditches and telephone poles. He's too preoccupied with principle to understand that principle isn't enough. Watching the stars instead of the road, he has wrecked the budget and the war on terror. Now he's heading for the Constitution. It's time to pull him over and take away the keys.

Kerry or his surrogates should say something like: “The Republicans spent all week arguing that Bush has the resolve necessary to win the war on terror. We agree with them. The issue isn’t the President’s resolve, it’s whether he’s competent. His policies have been a failure on everything from national security to Iraq to the economy to stem cells to outsourcing. Normally, when people make mistakes, they change course. But not Bush. He himself has said that when he makes a decision, he sticks to it. Well, that’s the whole problem, Wolf. We have a President with a firm conviction to keep driving America off a cliff.”

I have no idea if this would be effective, but I do know this. If Kerry allows the GOP echo chamber to define the debate in terms of whether Bush has resolve, he will lose. Bush's resolve is the main reason why he must be defeated.

Monday, August 30, 2004



[If you haven't read Part 1 yet, I would strongly encourage you to read that before reading this post (or at least go read the intro) because today's post is an extension of yesterday's.]

Yesterday I argued that the Bush administration's greatest failure was its execution of the "war on terror." Today, I'm going to focus on everything else. As I compiled this list of critiques, I noticed a common thread running throughout. It seems the most fundamental problem with the administration is that it thinks it knows better than everyone else about everything. You could make a pretty strong argument that the administration's most serious failures (listed below) can be traced back to its unwavering belief in the superiority of its own views. That was the original sin. Anyway, on the list . . .


While the war on terror represents Bush's greatest failure, the execution of the Iraq War is definitely second. I'm not going to re-argue whether the invasion was wise, justified, or even legal. Instead, I'm focusing on failures that both pro- and anti-war people can (and should) agree with. In other words, I'm going to be focusing on the planning for, and execution of, the war and occupation.

First, I think we should all take a big step back and really reflect on the consequences of blundering the execution of a war. The American attention span is so short that I think it's easy to forget what's at stake. But you shouldn't. When wars are executed improperly, people die. While deaths of soldiers are generally abstractions that fade after one or two news cycles for most Americans, there's nothing abstract about it for the families of the lost and wounded. For them, it's permanent. They're going to be staring at empty rooms in houses, and at empty chairs at holiday dinners forever. That's not even considering the innocent civilians killed, and the threat of instability that will result in more deaths and/or repression. The point is that the President has no greater responsibility than to make sure - to do everything in his power to make sure - that he has done all he could have done to prevent unnecessary death and wounding. Casualties are a part of war. We can accept that if necessary. We won't like it, but we can accept it. But what we cannot and will not accept are deaths that were the result of negligent planning and execution. In other words, we cannot forgive death that could have been avoided by an exercise of even minimal competence. The responsibility for failure in this area cannot be avoided by shifting the debate, or by a savvy convention speech. It's a burn that leaves a permanent scar - or at least it should be.

The Bush administration's execution of the war and occupation has been criminally reckless. It reminds me of a guy who gets really drunk and decides to drag race on a blind curve. If he ended up killing someone coming around the curve, he could argue that he didn't intend to do so. But a jury could still find his recklessness so extreme that it could convict him of murder. That's the best analogy to the execution of this war - drunk drag racing on a blind curve.

There are literally dozens of examples of blundering in the execution of the occupation, but I want to argue that the so-called "criminal recklessness" is most evident in two areas: (1) the pre-war planning for the postwar; and (2) the pre-war marketing of the invasion.

As for the former, I really can't add to what others with more expertise have so eloquently argued. First, we have the damning account in Foreign Affairs by former CPA Senior Advisor Larry Diamond entitled "What Went Wrong in Iraq." It's excellent, and everyone should read it. Here's one interesting excerpt:

But Washington failed to take such steps, for the same reasons it decided to occupy Iraq with a relatively light force: hubris and ideology. Contemptuous of the State Department's regional experts who were seen as too "soft" to remake Iraq, a small group of Pentagon officials ignored the elaborate postwar planning the State Department had overseen through its "Future of Iraq" project, which had anticipated many of the problems that emerged after the invasion. Instead of preparing for the worst, Pentagon planners assumed that Iraqis would joyously welcome U.S. and international troops as liberators. . . . Of course, these naive assumptions quickly collapsed, along with overall security, in the immediate aftermath of the war. U.S. troops stood by helplessly, outnumbered and unprepared . . . .

Phil Carter offers some strong corroboration by showing how little planning went into "Phase IV" of the Iraq operation, which was the occupation phase. Again, I'd encourage you to read what he writes (he was discussing Gen. Franks' new book). It's just dumbfounding:

Seriously, one can start adding up all of the implicit assumptions in these statements by Gen. Franks, and figure out exactly why the Phase IV plan went so poorly. For starters, there's no discussion of initial security needs, or initial needs for law and order. Second, there's no discussion of institutional responsibility for the key reconstruction projects described as being so essential — something we know now fell into the crack between State/USAID and Defense. Third, we have an incredibly optimistic troop redeployment estimate by Gen. Franks that reflects the best case scenario for post-war stability and reconstruction efforts. I don't know whether less optimistic scenarios were presented to the President or not, but it's clear from Franks' book that he certainly didn't give him any. And so, President Bush decided to go to war on the basis of this best case scenario, without the expectation that we could get bogged down in Phase IV.

Again, you have to remember that this was not the planning for the release of some political ad. This total disregard of reality took place in the context of planning a war. What's worse is that so many American casualties can be traced back directly to the errors in Phase IV planning. To be this reckless and incompetent when people's lives are at stake simply cannot be forgiven.

The second example of gross recklessness involved the pre-war marketing and justifications of the war. When you're talking about sending young people into combat, I think you have a moral responsibility to build as much support and as much legitimacy as possible. That's because increased support and legitimacy make our troops safer, and increase the chances of both their success and their survival. But this administration chose to bully rather than persuade. The result was that half the country and nearly the entire world vehemently opposed our actions. And once again, our troops will pay the price. Few foreign troops will come, and the American people will be unwilling to provide the extra troops and money necessary to win a largely unilateral occupation. Bush's father, to his credit, adopted the exact opposite strategy. The world was with us, and Congress had a debate consistent with the democratic ideal of deliberation. Bush talked of mushroom clouds on the eve of midterm elections - ensuring that the debate would be as bitter and polarized as possible. Remember, even if you think the war was just, these prewar actions - that pissed off 98% of humanity - threatened our success and threatened our troops. It cannot be forgiven.

Hostility to the Enlightenment

There are few things I hold more dear than the accomplishments of mankind during the Enlightenment. To me, Isaac Newton and our own Constitution are shining examples of the power of humans to transcend the limits of our primitive monkey brains through the collective use of reason. In particular, I am a huge believer in empiricism and the ideals of modern democracy (i.e., debate, informed citizenry, deliberation, rule of law). Bush has been hostile to both.

The assault on empiricism has been particularly striking. The whole idea behind empiricism is that one begins with a question. That is followed by an empirical investigation involving experiments or debate, which is then followed by a tentative conclusion based on the evidence from those experiments. The Bush administration flips this process on its head. It begins by adopting a conclusion, and then seeks out ways to justify that conclusion. Empiricism plays no role in reaching the conclusion - only politics. You can see it everywhere, from the "science" used by the administrative branches, to stem cells, to foreign policy, to tax cuts. As Paul O'Neill explained, there is simply no policy-making apparatus in this White House.

The second aspect of this critique is that Bush has also been hostile to the ideals of democracy. I can't articulate it any better than Jonathan Chait did in this TNR article which I highly recommend. Chait explains that democracies exist in degrees. It's not so much that Bush is blocking voting (though his brother seems to be), it's that he's been extremely hostile to the principles that make democracy work well - disclosure; debate; deliberation; informing the public. Again, Chait lays it all out much better than I can:

Bush and his allies have been described as partisan or bare-knuckled, but the problem is more fundamental than that. They have routinely violated norms of political conduct, smothered information necessary for informed public debate, and illegitimately exploited government power to perpetuate their rule. These habits are not just mean and nasty. They're undemocratic. . . . He is not going to cancel the election or rig it with faulty ballots. (Well, almost certainly not.) But democracy can be a matter of degree. Russia and the United States are both democracies, but the United States is more democratic than Russia. The proper indictment of the Bush administration is, therefore, not that he's abandoning American democracy, but that he's weakening it. This administration is, in fact, the least democratic in the modern history of the presidency.

Economic Incoherence

One could make a very strong case that Bush's economic policies have been primarily for the benefit of the most well-off, and have done little for wage-earners. But I'm not getting into all that. I want these critiques to be based on arguments that can be accepted by everyone across the political spectrum. So, even if you think tax cuts for the wealthy are great, you should still be very concerned by Bush's economic policies.

The problem is that the policies are utterly incoherent, and again, reckless. Bush has been all over the map. He cuts taxes, but he sharply increases spending. He claims to be free trade, but then supports protectionist measures like steel and shrimp tariffs, and the farm bill. He claims to support "limited government," but he pushed hard for a new and very expensive Medicare entitlement program whose costs threatens to skyrocket in the years ahead with the retirement of the Baby Boomers. If there's some coherence here, please help me find it.

But you won't find any because there is none. Bush's economic policies were not adopted pursuant to recommendations from expert macroeconomists. They were adopted pursuant to Karl Rove's "buy people out" electoral strategy. Rove knew he had almost 50% of the vote regardless of what Bush did. So, his strategy was to buy off slivers of the Democratic vote here and there, especially in swing states. So, at the same time he cut taxes, he passed an expensive entitlement program to buy off Florida. The steel tariffs were intended to buy off Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. Same deal for the farm bill, and No Child Left Behind. The goal was to pick off just enough votes to get over 50%.

The problem, of course, is that if your entire macroeconomic policy consists of rewarding contributors and buying off swing states, it won't help the country that much. Our country faces enormous long-term fiscal problems, especially the Baby Boom retirement. Yet, in the face of their imminent retirement, not to mention the fact that we're at war, Bush refuses to impose even the slightest level of fiscal discipline. And he refuses to do so because of politics.


The Bush administration is the most dishonest administration since Nixon - perhaps ever. People lose sight of this when they discuss the issue in terms of whether Bush technically "lied," or whether he actually stated the truth but did so in a somewhat misleading way. That's not the best way to think about it. A better way of framing the issue is to ask whether the administration is being honest or dishonest. That avoids the whole lawyerly debate over whether his statements are technically lies.

And I think it's objectively undeniable that the Bush administration has been extremely dishonest about almost everything. Here's a short list of everything that I could think of (feel free to add more in the comments): (1) Medicare Rx bill costs; (2) Iraq-al Qaeda connections (before and especially after the war); (3) weapons of mass destruction program-related activities; (4) the viability of the stem cell lines; (5) Atta in Prague; (6) Iraq's nuclear weapons; (7) the deficit; (8) the distribution of the tax cuts; (9) the state of the economy; (10) the junk science used by Bush's administrative agencies; (11) uranium in Africa; (12) the attention given to terrorism in the summer of 2001; (13) the non-existent straw men regularly used by Bush to make arguments (e.g., "some have said. . ."); and (14) pretty much anything Cheney and Rice say. I'm sure there are more that I'm forgetting - but the issues listed above are not minor ones.

The Interest Groups that Will Have Influence

On this last point, I'm making a critique that could be rejected by those on the Right in good faith. So even if you disagree with this one, I still hope you give some thought to all the other ones listed above (and in Part 1). Obviously, interest group politics is an essential part of all democracies. And it should be - they are integral to Madison's design. He imagined a large country where various ad hoc interest groups would shift around and unite to prevent the rise of a permanent tyranny of the majority.

So, the issue is not so much whether one party or the other is beholden to certain interest groups - they both are. Any party is. The question, then, is which side's interest groups do you prefer to have power and influence. On that issue, I think it's not even close.

On the Republican side, the party is dominated by two distasteful groups - Falwell social conservatives and corporate/industry interests. With respect to the former, I simply don't understand why the press always adopts the groupthink party-line about how the Democrats have to keep their fringe under control. I mean, have you seen the fringe on the Right? I did a post on this a while back and I'd encourage to read it. Here's an excerpt:

I mean, what exactly does the Left fringe do that makes it soooo intolerable? The Left's extremists fight for animal rights, environmental protection, racial/gender equality, peace, a bigger welfare state, against business, against nationalism, and so on. Of course, some are militant and close-minded, but the underlying merits of their positions don't seem, well, intolerable. My biggest gripe with some of these people is that they sometimes try to enforce things too rigidly, such as offensive campus speech.

But however distateful one might find these positions, they seem to be a world away from the positions of the Right fringe. As opposed to militantly enforcing peace, or equality, or animal rights, the Right fringe is racist, xenophobic, militaristic, homophobic, and theocratic - oh yeah, and they want to do away with the social safety net that helps poor and working class people.

What's worse, the Left fringe has little influence, while Karl Rove speaks to Falwell-types every day. The Left fringe is just that - a fringe. The Right fringe is an interest group with real influence. These people are extreme, and they differ only in degree from Islamic fundamentalists. And these people - who don't even believe in evolution - are controlling our national science policy with respect to stem cells - a procedure with enormous potential benefits. In one hundred years, our current stem cell debate will take its rightful place alongside the house arrest of Galileo and the Scopes trial.

The power and influence of the second interest group - corporate interests - are well-known. I won't repeat what I said in my post on the abuse of the administrative state, but everything is laid out there.

Given the choice, I'd rather be influenced by unions, senior citizen organizations, and groups that fight for racial equality than by the alternative - Jerry Falwell and Enron.

So that's the case against Bush. I hope you'll keep some of this stuff in mind as you listen to the convention speeches this week.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

THE CASE AGAINST BUSH - Part 1, The War on Terror 


As I noted before my vacation, I will not be voting for George W. Bush this fall. Although I’ve hurled plenty of snarky critiques Bush’s way, I did want to try to rise above the snark for a couple of days and lay out in some detail my most fundamental substantive disagreements with his administration. It's appropriate to think about these things as you listen to all the praise for the President this week - especially his leadership in the war on terror. Consider the following as a “big picture” assessment of the past four years – I’ll be getting into the day-to-day of the convention later this week.

[Ed. note - Just to let you know, this is a very lengthy post. I originally wanted to write about everything all at once, but it was too long. So today, I’m focusing primarily on the war on terror, which I feel is the administration’s greatest failure and the main reason why Bush should be voted out. Tomorrow I’ll move on to Iraq, domestic policy, and various other critiques.]

What Bush Did Right

In the interests of fairness, I tried very hard to think of a few issues on which I agreed with Bush. There honestly just weren’t that many, though I found a few. First, I agree with the decision to stop talking to Arafat. As Clinton suggested, and Dennis Ross has recently written, Arafat blew an enormous opportunity in 2000. He really could have made the world a safer place, but he blew it. I blame Arafat for the breakdown of negotiations, which eventually resulted in Ariel Sharon. It seems that there will be little hope of progress so long as Arafat is running things. So, I’m glad Bush told him to go screw himself in the hopes that a new leader would emerge. I only wish he had invested more capital into the overall conflict.

Second, Bush has been the first Republican president (post-1960) to refrain from race-baiting. To be sure, he’s not doing much to help African-Americans, but at least he’s not talking about welfare queens or running Willie Horton ads. Silence on race should be considered progress for a Republican President. That’s not to say that race-baiting doesn’t still exist – it’s an important part of Republican power structure in Southern states (just look at the prominence of the Confederate flag in recent races in Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina). But Bush has largely refrained from doing so.

Third, I agree with some of Bush’s tax cuts, especially those that were directed toward middle-class families with children.

Perhaps the most obvious area where people think Bush deserves praise – his reaction to 9/11 – is an area where I don’t think he deserves much praise at all (for reasons I’ll elaborate on below). Two years ago, however, I gave him very high marks for his reaction to 9/11. I especially enjoyed his visit to the still-smoking Ground Zero. Let me explain what I was thinking. What makes presidents great is not so much what they bring to office, but their ability to grow and adapt to the circumstances thrust upon them. Just look at Lincoln. He was a backwoods Illinois lawyer, and not all that progressive on race before 1860. But Lincoln’s greatness was his ability to grow – to seize his moment in History. And he did – he became our greatest president and delivered the best speech by any American president (the Second Inaugural).

For a brief moment after 9/11, I wondered if Bush (to a lesser extent) might be growing into History. Quite contrary to my regular ways of thinking, I believed that Bush’s simplification of the world and his so-called “moral clarity” were needed in the weeks following the attacks. No matter how much sympathy you might have for the Palestinians, and no matter how much antipathy you have for the West, 9/11 cannot be justified. To think otherwise would undermine every principle that leads you to sympathize with the oppressed and hate the West in the first place. Perhaps I reverted to some primitive emotion, but I found it reassuring to hear someone say (without nuance or relativism) that these acts were just flat-out evil, and that something in the Middle East had become seriously fucked up. The black-and-white thinking would soon need to be abandoned, but in the beginning, it was necessary to calm the public and to make sure people properly understood the depths of the depravity involved.

Unfortunately, I soon realized that Bush was not assessing new circumstances and adapting to them. Rather, he got cosmically lucky. His gross simplifications and black-and-white thinking were not calculated responses that were manifestations of growth – they’re how he thinks about everything. He merely got lucky that 9/11 just happened to call for precisely that sort of thinking. I hate to say it, but he exemplified the old saying that even a stopped clock is right a couple of times a day. When the complexities of the war on terror developed, he was woefully ill-suited to tackle them. I’ll explain what I mean in more detail below.

So that’s about it for my praise of Bush. What follows is the first of my most fundamental disagreements with the administration.

The War on Terror

By far – and I mean, BY FAR – Bush’s greatest failure has been in the war on terror. No other issue was more important, and no other issue has been more thoroughly mishandled. I think the consequences of failure in Iraq pale in comparison to the consequences that may result from our failures in the war on terror. For now, I’m analyzing the war in Iraq only as a subset of the larger war on terror – we’ll get to the other aspects of Iraq later (tomorrow).

First, I should explain why I think the so-called “war on terror” is so important. I’m devoting a lot of my time over the next couple of months (work doesn’t start until October) to reading up on the Middle East, terrorism, and Islam. From what I’ve read so far (including the 9/11 Commission Report), it leads me to think that I was right a few months ago when I argued that there really is no “war on terror.” Terrorism is merely a tactic in the much larger “war for the soul of the Middle East.” The West is not in conflict with an existential enemy like the Nazis or the Communists. But the Middle East is. That’s the key to everything – the goal of al Qaeda (and its offshoots) is not to destroy the West. Their goal is to remake the Middle East by creating Iranian/Taliban-style governments. Terrorism against the U.S. (and the West) is merely a tactic in the larger war.

Yes, it’s true that bin Laden has declared that he wants to restore the old Caliphate – which extends even to Spain. But he’s not a moron. He knows that’s impossible. You must remember that bin Laden is also a savvy propagandist. And the point of this particular propaganda is to rally Muslim opinion. Much of the Muslim world is angry and it feels powerless (in the face of questionable policies practiced by the U.S., Israel, China, Russia, and the corrupt Arab dictatorships). Bin Laden taps into that alienation by promising visions of power and glory and lashing out at the perceived oppressors. In fact, bin Laden wanted us to attack. Essentially, he was trying to extend guerilla warfare to a more global scale. One time-honored tactic in guerilla warfare is to provoke a disproportionate reaction by the opponent, which solidifies public support for the guerillas. The 9/11 Commission Report, for example, describes how bin Laden was upset that the U.S. did not respond more forcefully to the attacks on the Cole. It’s clear that he wanted the U.S. to charge in with guns a-blazin’ and radicalize the population in places like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which would (he hoped) destabilize the governments there.

I suspect that bin Laden failed to grasp how the world would perceive 9/11. It was appalled, and even Arabic nations didn’t seem that upset about removing the Taliban. In fact, I think that if we had stopped after Afghanistan (and done it correctly), we would be seeing a great deal of Arab introspection right now. But sure enough, Bush gave bin Laden exactly what he wanted a year later – an unprovoked and unnecessary invasion of an oil-rich Arab nation full of holy Islamic sites. In retrospect, it was a quite an accomplishment - to alienate the entire world in just a year after enjoying historically unprecedented support and sympathy.

Iraq was a great setback in the war for the soul of the Middle East. But we cannot lose – the stakes are too high. If we lose in Iraq, it will certainly be nasty. But it’s nothing compared to what would happen if bin Laden succeeds and political Islam begins sweeping across the greater Middle East. Israel will be in deep trouble if a coup in Pakistan is followed by a sale of nuclear material to terrorists. Women will be repressed for generations. A deep intellectual freeze will settle in and again prevent the Middle East from contributing the progress of the world. More than anything, I just can’t bear the thought of losing so many young people to such horrible, repressive regimes. This is high-stakes stuff we’re talking about. And that brings me back to the Bush administration.

The most compelling reason why the Bush administration should not be re-elected is that they fundamentally misunderstood (and continue to misunderstand) the nature of the conflict we’re in. Thankfully, some smart conservatives like David Brooks and Francis Fukuyama are voicing dissents. But given the recent proposals regarding missile defense, it’s clear that the Bush administration still doesn’t get it. The failure to understand the “war on terror” is the administration’s original sin. The debacle in Iraq is merely a symptom of the more basic, and more serious, conceptual error.

This error really breaks down into different parts: (1) the failure to move beyond Cold War modes of thought; and (2) the failure to understand that long-term victory requires winning the hearts and minds (which itself is a function of misunderstanding the nature of the conflict – i.e., not a war against terrorism, but against political Islam in the Middle East).

After 9/11, I heard many times that this was a “new kind of war.” 9/11 jarred the world so thoroughly that the old modes of thought were no longer adequate. As the administration explained, the challenges of battling terrorism post-9/11 called for new thinking, new strategies, and new understandings. What’s especially shocking is that the same administration that told us this stuff over and over again seemed oblivious to its own message. They proceeded to fight the terrorists as if they were a hostile nation-state in the height of the Cold War. As I explained here, the fundamental error was the belief that nation-states are the most relevant actors in the war on terror. In reality, modern terrorism is “transnational,” meaning that it is funded and supported by networks of individuals who are actually hostile to most of the governments in the Middle East. The 9/11 Commission notes this over and over and over – and “transnational” was the word it used. It's very similar to organized crime. And what I learned is that the Clinton administration realized the dimensions of the new terrorism too, well before the Bush administration took office.

But the Bush administration did not adapt to this new world. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz wanted to invade Iraq rather than Afghanistan. These men are not dumb. In fact, they’re brilliant. And their theory wasn’t crazy – it just had outdated assumptions. They were working from the premise that terrorism cannot exist without state support. It was a lesson they learned from their Cold War training, and the exchanges with Libya in 1986 and Iraq in 1993 (Bush’s assassination attempt). The lesson was that if you strike the root (the nation-state sponsor), the terrorism will wither on the vine. That explains perfectly the rationale for invading Iraq (to the extent it was related to terrorism) – it was to scare nation-states in the hopes they would stop supporting terrorism. That also explains why they pushed so hard for missile defense prior to 9/11. They saw the most urgent threats as coming from rogue nation-states, rather than transnational terrorists. The fact that they continue to propose spending loads of money on missile defense makes me question whether they’ve learned anything from the past four years.

But however brilliant Bush's advisors may be, they were wrong. Terrorism evolved, and they failed to realize that it had. What’s so especially tragic is that their misconceptions led to them to adopt a strategy (i.e., invading Iraq) that was actually counterproductive to battling the new terrorism. Again, you must remember always that we’re in a battle for the soul of the Middle East – we are not fighting a finite group of existential enemies that can be eliminated through force. The more the Arab world hates us, the stronger the fundamentalists will become, and vice-versa. When the anger rises, so does the level of financial support, volunteering, and public sympathy.

That’s why things like Abu Ghraib, General Boykin, and the fighting in Najaf’s holy cemetery are so absolutely devastating to our effort – more so than perhaps our national press realizes. It’s not just that they inflame public opinion, it’s that these actions fulfill the stereotype of the West as imperial Arab-oppressors and Islam-haters. And this of course meshes perfectly with bin Laden’s propaganda, and it makes it more palatable to young, angry, alienated Arabs. If you sat down and tried to think of the worst possible ways to combat Islamic terror (and political Islam more generally), invading Iraq would be near the very top of the list. It’s strange that men as brilliant as Wolfowitz, Perle, and Feith could be so colossally wrong about Iraq (assuming they’re being sincere as to the motives for invading). But they were. And our troops (and their families) are paying the price.

That’s yet another reason why it would have been so much better to have had Gore or Clinton in office. I really find it amusing when people give thanks that Gore wasn’t President on 9/11 given what we now know about Bush. People cut Bush way too much slack. I, for one, don’t think it’s asking too much for the President of the United States to have a basic understanding of complex issues before he makes the final decision to go to war. Bush clearly did not. Does anyone really think so? I suspect that few Presidents have been so dependent upon their advisors as this one. Bush’s simplistic thinking – and lack of intellectual curiosity – made him woefully ill-suited to understand the enormous challenges and complexities presented by the new terrorism – let alone to settle disputes between experts like Cheney and Powell. I mean, good Lord, our soldiers were sent to war by someone who couldn’t even “visit with” the 9/11 Commission without Cheney by his side. What does that say about him? I’m sorry, but Matt Yglesias is dead right – intelligence matters.

The conflict known as the “war on terror” needed a President with the ability to challenge his advisors and to grasp quickly the multitude of variables at play. Instead, we had a President who relied on his “gut,” which is merely a polite way of saying he was relying on nothing. Gore or Clinton would have been able to grasp these complexities, and they would have introduced an information-producing process that focused heavily on debate and dissent. They would not have allowed an ideologically homogeneous cabal to dominate their thinking, and thus, their actions.

I also think Clinton and Gore would have understood that we need long-term strategies to win the “war on terror.” Because we are actually in a conflict for the Middle East, I would like to think that either one of them would have approached our conflict more holistically. For example, as Clinton understood, the road to peace in the Middle East begins in Palestine. If we could solve that problem, I think that the infamous domino theory might actually work – our success would ripple across the Middle East. But we need more than that. Perhaps above all else, we need economic reform. We also need a mixture of carrots and sticks to stop the oppressive practices of the corrupt regimes we either support or turn a blind eye upon. In short, we need to rely on more than force and the threat of force.

We are facing a truly enormous challenge. The fate of many generations rests in this generation’s hands. Unfortunately, we have an administration that not only fails to understand the nature of our conflict, it has actually taken steps that are causing us to lose the Middle East completely. This cannot be excused or made up for. The damage is done, and it will take a long time and a lot of effort to undo. The only hope is for a new team, and even then it may be too late. I fear we have already lost much of the current generation of Arabs in the Middle East. But I really get scared when I think we may also lose their children and grandchildren if we don’t get some new people in the White House who better understand the nature of our conflict.

I would strongly urge my conservative readers to take a step back and really reflect on the effects of Iraq as it relates to the war on terror. The invasion only makes sense under the assumption that (1) nation-states are the most important actors; and (2) we are fighting an existential enemy that can be eliminated through force. But in my opinion, both assumptions are wrong – dead wrong. And if you think invading Iraq has made the United States (and the West, Israel, etc.) safer, I’m not sure how you get to that conclusion other than relying non-empirical platitudes about how things are better without Saddam. They are not. And that’s not to say that Saddam wasn’t a murdering bastard – he was. But we live in a complex world, and the way he was removed made the world less safe than it was when a declawed Saddam and a stable Iraq were still around.

Tomorrow, I’ll turn to the war in Iraq itself – especially its execution – along with domestic policy and my other general critiques.

[Update: In response to a thoughtful comment, I should make it clear that when I say we aren't facing an "existential enemy," that's not to say that there aren't people trying to kill us and make life difficult. There are, and we must find those people and kill them if necessary. But an existential enemy is one that threaten's your very society's existence. Islamic terror is nowhere close to posing this sort of threat. But that's not to say it won't cause a lot of harm - especially if we don't take more action on nuclear proliferation (another failure in the administration's war on terror). But the key to remember is that this sort of terrorism will be transnational - and it will rely on hatred of the U.S. for funding and foot soldiers. The acts we're taking today are making it more likely that things like nuclear terror will plague our children. Just read today's Post article entitled, "Pakistan Losing Grip on Extremists."

Also, I should point out that the Taliban shouldn't really be considered a "state sponsor." It was merely a faction of a failed state. As someone quoted by the 9/11 Commission explained, it was actually a state sponsored by terrorists, not vice-versa.]

Saturday, August 28, 2004



I'm back from vacation, so regular posting will resume shortly (probably tomorrow). By the way, vacations are great - Americans really should take more of them. I learned a great deal from mine. For example, it's true - Americans are really really fat. Well over half the men I saw at the beach and at my hotel were significantly overweight. I was also rather amazed at the number of couples that consisted of fat, unattractive men and thin, attractive women. I seem to remember this topic coming up a few months ago on the blogosphere - I wish I had paid more attention. Anyway, the vacation was also a source of inspiration for me. I came up with a new theory on the proper interpretation of the Commerce Clause. Basically, I support any interpretation that would allow Congress to ban all Jimmy Buffett songs within 50 miles of any coastline (or at the very least "Brown-Eyed Girl").

Seriously though, I think it helped me a great deal to just get away for a week. I completely isolated myself from all news - I only watched the Olympics. Well, I did spend 5 minutes on the Internet Monday night and saw that the Swift Boat stuff was still raging - and it almost ruined my night (though it vindicated my First Law of the Press, which states: a given topic's importance is inversely proportional to the amount of press coverage devoted to it). I didn't read anything else after that until today.

But the break was needed, and I think the blog will be better because of it. It's really easy to get lost in the day-to-day news cycles. I think it's important for all people - especially bloggers - to step back periodically and assess the big picture. I also think I have more interesting things to say when I have given myself some time to chew over and wrestle with an idea - rather than firing off the first thought I have. In short, reflection is good. I realize, though, that reflection is damn near impossible given the demands of everyday life - but it's still something for which people (especially writers, bloggers, pundits, etc.) should try to set aside some time. Consider it as quiet time with the Muse.

On that note, here's what I've been thinking about over the past week, and what I will be writing about in the days and weeks to come. First, I'm working on a longer non-snarky post that outlines my substantive disagreements with the Bush administration. I'll hopefully have that up by Sunday. Second, after reading Orhan Pamuk's Snow (reviewed here and here), I'm beginning to think that the containment of (and struggle with) "political Islam" may be the most important challenge of our generation. I should add that Snow is awesome - I would consider it must-reading for anyone wanting an insight into the struggle between modernism and Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East (it's a novel - and I suspect this guy is on his way to some major awards). I'm going to be writing a lot about this in the days to come (beginning with some thoughts on Snow). Essentially, I think the whole concept of a "war on terror" completely misses the true nature of the conflict we are engaged in. We are not fighting an enemy of civilization - we are fighting for the soul of the Middle East. There are over a billion Muslims in the Middle East (and Asia). And we are losing them to radical fundamentalists. As I said, I have a lot to say about this, so I'll save it for later.

Finally, I'm debating whether I should try to be a bit more experimental on this blog. For example, instead of firing off unrelated posts each day, I may (at times) focus my efforts on a single topic for days, sort of like a mini-series. It's similar to the idea of creating an album, as opposed to a collection of songs. Second, when I first started this blog, I imagined that I would often write short stories (very short) that would include heavy doses of political or legal satire. That's why I called it Legal Fiction. It hasn't turned out that way, and perhaps for the better. I have no idea whether I'll actually start doing this from time to time, but just don't get weirded out if I do. And if they suck, I'll stop.

The basic point is that I want to try new things and not settle into a fixed pattern of writing. A lot of blogs are in the "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" stage, but few have moved on to "Sgt. Pepper's" in that they aren't "growing" or pushing beyond the boundaries of their initial format. That's why I really like Fafblog - I think it's a pretty innovative expansion of the "genre," so to speak (as is Jesus' General). Essentially, I want to try new things from time to time in the hopes of pushing Legal Fiction into its Rubber Soul period (and yes, I'm very aware that I should be shot for analogizing any little part of this blog to the Beatles). But don't get me wrong, I'm not going to drastically change anything. It's just a matter of introducing some new stuff every now and then to spice things up (which I won't do if I think the new stuff stinks).

So, that's it from the administrative front. Regular blogging resumes Sunday.

Friday, August 20, 2004



Ok - I'm outta here. I'll be back next Friday or Saturday. I'll hope you'll come back then. Also, if any of you feel so inclined, here's a link to the Washington Post "blog contest." I'm nominating Instapundit.

Also, I should note that Fafblog is fast becoming my favorite blog.



The NYT returned to being a real paper and laid the smack down on the Swift Boat Vets this morning. I thought it was a pretty damning article so I’m not sure why other liberal bloggers don’t seem to agree. In particular, Matt Yglesias says, “The article's lede -- the only part that many readers will actually process -- is devoted to setting up the fact that the Swift vets controversy exists, not to debunking their charges.” Perhaps I’m missing something – because I thought the article did quite a bit of debunking, and the lede seems OK to me. Then again, I’ve never agreed that this whole mess will be a “net negative” for Kerry. I think it helps Kerry if the fight is over Vietnam – especially if the accusations turned out to be Rove-funded lies, which they are. I realize, though, that I must distinguish between reality, and reality as perceived by certain swing groups – who are also apparently susceptible to sappy 9/11 exploitation. But still, it just doesn’t seem possible that a majority of sentient Americans who are not Glenn Reynolds wouldn’t see the Swift Boat Vet stuff for what it was. Anyway, everyone should read the whole article. I was impressed with it. And I have a sort of laundry list of reactions to it.

First, I think this is exactly the type of reporting the blogosphere has been asking for – which is yet another reason why I found Atrios’s and Tapped’s reactions so curious. It’s unrealistic and inappropriate to criticize the press merely for not advocating pro-Democrat or anti-Republican positions. That’s not what I’m asking the press to do. What I do want, though, is for the press to punish those who lie – from either party. When there are objective answers to questions or controversies, let us know. That’s all I’m asking – call a spade a spade. When faced with an obvious lie that is objectively false, the press should abandon the “he said/she said” template. That’s exactly what happened in this article. The Swift Boat Vets said some things, and the reporters dug deeper to show the contradictions and inconsistencies. We should be praising this type of reporting.

Second, the most damning part of the article (in my opinion) was the link to Rove and Bush – which explains why Bush and Move-It-Forward Scotty wouldn’t condemn the ad:

Records show that the group received the bulk of its initial financing from two men with ties to the president and his family - one a longtime political associate of Mr. Rove's, the other a trustee of the foundation for Mr. Bush's father's presidential library. A Texas publicist who once helped prepare Mr. Bush's father for his debate when he was running for vice president provided them with strategic advice. And the group's television commercial was produced by the same team that made the devastating ad mocking Michael S. Dukakis in an oversized tank helmet when he and Mr. Bush's father faced off in the 1988 presidential election.

I’m sorry, but that’s huge. Has this been reported before? I had never seen it. Kevin Drum at least thought it was new. Anyway, I remember that in the Civil War, offensive charges by one side or the other very often came back to bite the attackers. For example, one side would go on the attack, but in doing so, would become disorganized and open themselves up to a counter-offensive (which was often successful). I wonder if that might be possible here. In their zeal to attack Kerry, it looks like the Rove machine was a little sloppy. I mean, just look at this graphic – their fingerprints are ALL OVER this mess. They seem to have left themselves open to a counter-offensive – especially considering that the vets’ claims are blatant lies. I should add that the vets themselves seem like little more than hapless pawns in a much bigger game – though that doesn’t excuse their behavior.

Third, I think the article does a good job of showing the underside of the modern-day GOP – or at least its current leadership. Look closely – the NYT has shined a light into the shadows. No doubt, the bugs will scurry back into the darkness, but we still got a very good glimpse of how things really work behind the scenes. In reality, the GOP under Bush has two faces – like Two-Face in Batman. The one face is its public face which speaks of religious values, liberal tyranny, and “real” Americans. The other face, though, is hidden from the public. Let’s call it the Tom DeLay face. That’s the face of a spiteful group of individuals who are willing to do whatever is necessary to personally destroy another human being. It happened to Clinton. It happened to McCain. And now they’re trying to do it to Kerry. I mean, think about what we’re seeing here. The bulk of the financing came from a longtime Rove associate and a trustee of Daddy Bush’s presidential library. Rove clearly knew about it. And the fact that Drudge and Fox News have given so much coverage to the lies is another indication of the level of coordination involved here behind the scenes. Once again, I’m wondering where have all the honest conservatives gone? The leadership of your party has become corrupt. The only way to punish them is to vote them out. Then, the GOP will be leaderless, and a new group of real, non-corrupt conservatives can take the wheel. Sometimes you have to lose to win.

To on-the-fence moderates, take a good look. Take a good long look at what you’re seeing – and think about what you’re seeing. I mean, I will give Rove credit for having gall. Bush didn’t even serve, and probably didn’t fulfill his National Guard duties. Kerry of course did serve, and showed great bravery under fire. So, one might think that Bush would shy away from attacking him on this ground. But no – instead, Rove and pals chose this very issue upon which to apply the “Clinton method.” They funded and supported a group of veterans (angry about Kerry’s protests, no doubt) who lied – egregiously – about Kerry’s actions in combat. That my friends is chutzpah. We have the organization surrounding a draft dodger subsidizing an effort to accuse Kerry of lying and of inflicting wounds on himself during the combat he volunteered for. I think I would be more than a little upset if I were a veteran. Shit, I heard Brit Hume talking about medal inflation in Vietnam last night. Can you imagine if a Democrat brought that up about some Republican’s combat record?

All in all, it’s really simple. These are bad people. I’m not talking about conservatives – I’m talking about the network of individuals around Bush and their allies in the media. The people surrounding Bush – those who do his dirty work – are not moral, are not conservative, and do not deserve to remain in power. This is not hard-nosed politics, which I respect. This is coordinated lying and smearing about a veteran’s service to his country. You’ll get a good sense of which conservative blogs/pundits/etc. are respectable by noting how many continue to do all they can to defend the Swift Boat Vets even in the face of overwhelming evidence that their book is a product of orchestrated lies. I hope the press keeps hammering on this.

Oh yeah, and the pie-on-your-face award goes to Brent of Southern Appeal, who wrote the following a while back:

Why haven't we seen any hard hitting investigations of Mr. O'Neill or the other members of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth organization by the NYT or others? It has to be that they know what they will find, and that is that Kerry truly is Unfit for Command.

I bet you wish you could take that one back, eh Brent?

[Update: Well, maybe Americans aren't as sentient as I thought. The University of Maryland (PIPA) has released a new poll showing that large numbers of Americans remain grossly uninformed about some of the most basic issues surrounding the Iraq war - though the numbers are declining. Anyway, you can get the pdf here. Here are some of the highlights.

First, 50% of Americans (fifty percent!) believe that Iraq was either involved in 9/11 (15%) or "substantially supported" al Qaeda (35%). Everyone else said that Iraq had a "few" al Qaeda contacts (32%) or no connection (10%).

As for WMDs, Americans believe that right before the war, Iraq: (1) had actual WMDs (35%); (2) had no WMDs, but had a major program for developing them (19%); (3) had limited activities (34%); or (4) had no activities (10%).

The report added:

Only 44% of respondents knew that the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that before the war Iraq did not have WMD or a major WMD program, and only 47% knew that the 9/11 Commission concluded that Iraq did not give substantial support to al Qaeda.

But Good God, don't they know that Kerry said he was in Cambodia on Christmas twenty years ago, when he was actually there in January?!? That clearly shows that he can't be trusted. It would be different if he had been dishonest about, say, justifications for going to war (WMDs or connections with al Qaeda) before and especially after the war. I watched a woman with her arm blown off in Iraq on CNN this morning explaining how she could no longer fix her hair or put a bra on. But I'm sure that she will agree that the Christmas embellishment was a far, far, more egregious dishonesty. Especially when you consider that Kerry wasn't even there until January, and he said he was there at Christmas.]



Today I finish up my clerkship. Because I'm preparing to go on vacation and then move to DC, I thought I would give everyone a brief update of what to expect in the near future.

First, I'll be going on vacation this weekend and I'm taking a week off from the blogosphere. I'll probably post about something that annoys me tomorrow after I read the papers, but after that, I'll be outta here until at least a week from Saturday. I will of course be back before Sauron gathers his forces in New York.

Second, now that I am off the government payroll, I could start campaigning and fundraising for specific candidates. I'm not going to do that though - for now. While I'm certainly anti-Bush, I'm not exactly thrilled with the Democratic Party either. The cowardice in 2002 and 2003 left a very bad taste in my mouth - and America, its military, and the world are paying a price because the Democrats could not stop Bush, or at the very least, demand competent execution of the war. The world is more dangerous, and progress in the Middle East has been set back by a generation, as we have strengthened the fundamentalists' hands all across the region. Besides, I prefer to be an independent pundit, not a party advocate. But don't get me wrong, I would love to see a Democratic Congress and a Kerry presidency. Stopping moving backwards would be progress at this point, even if a Kerry administration couldn't enact much progressive legislation with the anchor of the GOP Congress around its neck. If I do wade into fundraising, it will only be against specific candidates like Tom DeLay or Marilyn Musgrave - if it appears the challengers have a shot this fall. But boy oh boy - I can't wait for the 2006 Democratic Senate primary in Connecticut.

Third, I wanted to leave everyone with a long, substantive post on why I will support Kerry this fall - but I'm going to wait until I get back. My support for Kerry exists until November 2, and after that, it must be re-earned (and I'm sure that will keep him up at night). I support Kerry only because I'm anti-Bush. But, I really want to devote some time to this post - I think it's important to articulate in great detail all the reasons why I oppose this administration. I want to get beyond snark, and focus on substance. So, I needed some time to gather my thoughts.

Fourth, after the Republican convention, I'm not sure what my schedule will look like. I don't start work until October, so I'll be bumming around DC for a month. Posting could be a little hectic depending on how quickly I get moved in - but I'll let you know ahead of time. As for the new job and its effect on the blog, I'll write about that later this fall.

Fifth, Carly Patterson is my new hero. She is an absolute badass. I mean, I couldn't even walk across the balance beam. I never dreamed I would have watched gymnastics so closely this summer. It's awesome. In one second - one second! - you can lose a lifetime's worth of training and effort. It's cruel, but I guess the cruelty and pure chance give it its beauty. Oh yeah, and the Olympics should be in Athens every year.

Thursday, August 19, 2004



Plainsman - one of Southern Appeal's best bloggers - has gone solo. If you want to read someone who will challenge your views, as opposed to Bush hackery, he's your guy. He also brings a paleo-con perspective that is missing in the conservative media/blogosphere - along with a knowledge of guns and fine wine. Anyway, I'd encourage everyone to check him out.

[Update: I think I'm going to make this a more regular feature. I remember how much I appreciated getting mentioned by other blogs when I just got started (and it's tough). So if and when you start a new blog, please email me and let me know - maybe I'll aggregate them on Saturdays or something.]



As Dick Morris and I predicted, the Swift Boat ad is really starting to backfire. First, we learn (on page 1 of the Post) that Larry Thurlow lied when he swore in an affidavit that there was no enemy fire on the day Kerry saved Rassmann's life. As it turns out, Thurlow's own military records contradict him (but I'm sure it was a liberal plot - you know, lying about Thurlow's record thirty years earlier in preparation for the 2004 election).

But the Swift Boat vets are not the point. The point is that the ad puts Bush on the defensive and it puts Vietnam - Kerry's strongest card - front and center. First, Bush is going to be hounded to condemn the ad, especially in light of today's Post article. Second, the papers are going to be full of excerpts like these:

Members of Kerry's crew have come to his defense, as has Rassmann, the Special Forces officer whom he fished from the river. Rassmann says he has vivid memories of being fired at from both banks after he fell into the river and as Kerry came to his rescue.

Third, the ad gives Kerry a chance to fire at Bush on the subject of Vietnam, which puts the battle on Kerry-friendly terrain. Just look at the strong words Kerry used today (via the Post):

Sen. John Kerry accused President Bush on Thursday of relying on front groups to challenge his record of valor in Vietnam, asserting, "He wants them to do his dirty work." Fighting back, Kerry said if Bush wants to "have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer: 'Bring it on.'" Bush served stateside in the Texas Air National Guard during the war.

Ouch. This is just going to get better and better as Bush stubbornly continues not to condemn the ad. And kudos to the Post - if the press had been this vigilant in investigating the claims (and financing) of the anti-Clinton groups, then perhaps we could have been spared from the impeachment debacle.

[Update: Oh yeah, the eternal defender of truth, Glenn "They-Were-Asking-for-the-Genocide" Reynolds, has responded to the Post article. Here's his reaction: "WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO GET THE POST LOOKING AT MILITARY RECORDS? A story that's bad for Kerry's critics, I guess. No mention at all of the Cambodia story, though, in which Kerry's critics have been proved right -- and which the Post has ignored." Kevin Drum explains the Christmas crap - which is not even close to the level of this lie. But that's to be expected from Reynolds the mindless hack - the most overrated person on the Internet.]



I want to propose a new law – a scientific one, sort of like one of Newton's laws. I can’t quite come up with a good name, but I think it should be something like “Atrios’s Law” or perhaps “Blitzer’s Second Law of Press Dynamics.” Anyway, here goes: The relevance of a given issue to being president is inversely proportional to the amount of press coverage it gets. This is merely a subset of the more general law, which I call “The First Law of the Press”: A given issue’s importance is inversely proportional to the amount of press coverage it gets. Thus, the press coverage of Afghanistan – which has enormous importance for the entire world – approaches zero, while press coverage of the Laci Peterson trial – which has no importance to anyone – approaches infinity. (I would love to see some statistics on the combined time given to Laci and then compare that to Afghanistan.)

The same is generally true of presidential campaigns. Gore’s reference to Love Story, which had no relevance to anything, got a lot of press coverage, while Bush’s lack of any domestic policy whatsoever gets almost no coverage. (“But he projects such warmth on TV.”)

Fortunately, the NYT and the Post have offered an exception to this law by providing some excellent coverage of the least-known, but possibly most egregious, outrage of the Bush administration – the whoring of the administrative state. As I explained here, it is absolutely vital to remember that in picking a president, you are picking an entire executive branch. Decisions made by administrative agencies are very, very important, and affect all of our lives every day. Thus, applying Atrios’s (et al.) Law, we should expect that because the actions of the administrative state are very important, they will get almost no coverage. And generally, this is true.

That’s why I want to give a very big hat tip to the NYT and especially the Post for zeroing in recently (in four different articles) on just how much our administrative agencies have been used to help business, even though the actions hurt Americans and threaten our safety. Some of this stuff gets tedious, but I would strongly recommend reading all four of the articles if possible. The NYT is the most general, so if you can only read one, read that one. The Post ran an excellent three-part series this week – here and here and here. Other than Howard Kurtz, I haven’t seen these articles getting much play on the blogosphere, but they should. I mean, this is really what’s at stake in November.

The general theme that runs through all four articles is simply that the Bush administration has quietly gutted rules and regulations in order to help GOP-friendly businesses and industries. There’s too much information to summarize it all, but here’s an excerpt to give you a taste from the NYT:

Allies and critics of the Bush administration agree that the Sept. 11 attacks, the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq have preoccupied the public, overshadowing an important element of the president's agenda: new regulatory initiatives. Health rules, environmental regulations, energy initiatives, worker-safety standards and product-safety disclosure policies have been modified in ways that often please business and industry leaders while dismaying interest groups representing consumers, workers, drivers, medical patients, the elderly and many others. And most of it was done through regulation, not law - lowering the profile of the actions.

Here’s a short list of some of the specific regulations that have been changed, introduced, or gutted in order to make the regulatory state more “business-friendly”: forbidding the public release of data on unsafe motor vehicles; increasing logging (at the request of lumber and paper companies); diluting rules protecting coal miners from black lung; reducing tuberculosis protections; no longer requiring employers to record employees’ ergonomic injuries; increasing hours that truckers can drive without a break; “modifying” the Clean Air Act (new installations without pollution controls); weakening standards that increased air conditioner efficiency; drilling for oil in national parks; substantially reducing the staff of OSHA (which is responsible for assessing hazards to workers); and allowing cancer-causing herbicides banned by the EU to be used (atrazine - more on that in a second).

Another neat trick is the administration’s interpretation of the “Data Quality Act,” which was passed in 2000 and written by a old vet of Phillip Morris (this is described in great detail in the second Post article). This is an especially slimy law. On its face, it seems OK – it merely requires that the government rely on “sound science” in issuing information. In reality, the administration has used it as a way to block any information that is unfavorable to its industry buddies by declaring that the science or methodology used to reach the unfavorable conclusions was unsound. This law has been used to challenge all of the following: the data showing the health damage caused by atrazine (a weed-killer); the data used by consumer groups to block wood with arsenic in playground equipment; the data used to justify restrictions on logging; the dietary recommendations to limit sugar and salt intake (at the behest of sugar and salt interests); the data on the hazards of the metal nickel; data that ranked the risk of lint fire in clothes dryers. [The atrazine noted above is used mostly on corn - over 80 million pounds of it are sprayed in the U.S. each year - and it is the "most prevalant herbicide in ground and surface water" - happy drinking.] Let’s not forget that the administration declaring all this science to be bad is the same administration that has been denounced by dozens of Nobel Prize winners, who claimed that the Bushies were politicizing science to fit their political agenda.

To me, the most disgusting one of all – and one that hits me personally as a proud, life-long Kentuckian – is the revival of mountaintop removal in the Appalachians. My friends, when you destroy a mountain, it don’t grow back. It’s forever. Appalachia’s natural beauty is unsurpassed. It’s a national treasure. And now, thanks to this administration, my home land is being raped by these fucking industry whores who care nothing for the environment. If you’ve ever driven by one of these newly “flat-topped” mountains, you’ll share my rage. As I’m becoming more potty-mouthed than I would prefer (I’m sorry, but this really bothers me), I’ll just give you some excerpts (all of this is laid out in the third Post article):

[Im mountaintop removal,] [m]iners target a green peak, scrape it bare of trees and topsoil, and then blast away layer after layer of rock until the mountaintop is gone. In just over a decade, coal miners used the technique to flatten hundreds of peaks across a region spanning West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. . . . Today, mountaintop removal is booming again, and the practice of dumping mining debris into streambeds is explicitly protected, thanks to a small wording change to federal environmental regulations. U.S. officials simply reclassified the debris from objectionable "waste" to legally acceptable "fill." The "fill rule," as the May 2002 rule change is now known, is a case study of how the Bush administration has attempted to reshape environmental policy in the face of fierce opposition from environmentalists, citizens groups and political opponents. Rather than proposing broad changes or drafting new legislation, administration officials often have taken existing regulations and made subtle tweaks that carry large consequences.

. . .

Government studies show that mountaintop mining inflicts a heavy toll. Streams that have not been buried under mining debris carry high levels of silt and toxic chemicals, experts say. About 5 percent of forest cover in southern West Virginia has been stripped away by mines, along with popular mountain vistas that can never be replaced.

. . .

"A huge percentage of the watershed is being filled in and mined out, and we have no idea what the downstream impacts will be," said one senior government scientist who has studied mountaintop mining extensively but insisted on anonymity for fear of repercussions at work. "All we know is that nothing on this scale has ever happened before."

. . .

As more mountaintops disappear and sometimes entire villages along with them, resistance has spread. Coal companies have offered to buy and demolish houses near the mines, effectively depopulating settlements. Residents who remain recite a familiar litany of complaints: dust, truck traffic, constant blasting that rattles nerves and sometimes damages houses. Even more jarring for many is the sight of the destruction of the ancient hills, familiar landmarks and touchstones for generations of families. "I've been coming up through these mountains since I was 5 years old. Now the place looks like an asteroid hit," Bo Webb, a retired businessman and Vietnam veteran, said of the 1,800-acre mountaintop mine above his house in central West Virginia's Raleigh County. "A lot of us up here have fought for our country. To see what is happening now to our homes makes me so mad."

Me too, Bo – it makes me so mad too. This is one of those issues upon which secular liberals and progressive Christians could unite. The secular people can fight to protect environmental treasures – Christians can fight to preserve the land that God has entrusted to them to honor and protect.

But most importantly, these actions reveal one of the deepest, most fundamental dishonesties about the Bush administration - they are screwing the American worker at the same time they try to portray themselves as the working man's party. They use and exploit the culture wars to conceal stuff like this. They beat up on gays, so that West Virginia people won’t realize that they’re breathing in toxic debris and having their land raped by the coal companies - forever. And before anyone suggests otherwise, the Post explains that mountaintop removal is opposed 2 to 1 by residents of central Appalachia.

I would urge the progressive blogosphere to focus more heavily on these regulatory issues, especially mountaintop removal.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004



As you may of heard, Kerry has wisely come out against the missile defense program. Not only is it costly, and probably ineffective, it's a relic of Cold War nation-state-centric thinking. (And it could trigger a new arms race.) So, I couldn't disagree more with the following statement from the President (via the Post):

I think those who oppose this ballistic missile system don't understand the threats of the 21st century. . . . [Foes of the missile defense system are] living in the past. We're living in the future.

Actually, the opposite is true, though I do believe this is one area where the Bush team isn't lying - they actually believe it's true. One of the clearest choices people have in this election is between a foreign policy group that believes nation-states are our greatest threat, and those who believe that transnational networks of terrorists (similar to organized crime) pose the greatest threat. I've explained several times before that the assumption of the centrality of nation-states represents the biggest conceptual error in the administration's war on terror. It would be far better to spend those billions toward preventing attacks by these international terrorist networks, rather than remaining in the Cold War paradigm (which was the formative period for the foreign policy people in the Bush administration).



Despite what you may think, there is very little internal consensus within the modern Republican Party – other than the Bolshevik-esque loyalty to the current President, whose policies themselves have almost no internal coherence. These differences are not being voiced right now, though, out of fear of losing the White House. I suspect that, if Bush loses, the GOP will enter a period of temporary chaos. All the various factions – which include overlapping and often incompatible groups such as neo-cons, paleo-cons, realists, Rockefeller Republicans, deficit hawks, libertarians, corporate executives, and Falwell conservatives – will find themselves in a full-blown civil war for leadership of the newly-headless GOP. It will be fun to watch. But despite these internal tensions, there is one holy firmament in the GOP sky – limited government. That’s the one position that almost everyone in the GOP camp can agree upon.

What’s interesting, though, is how conceptually meaningless the idea of “limited government” actually is when you stop and think about it. What's frustrating is that - despite the conceptual barrenness - declaring support for“limited government” sounds so good in the abstract. Just listen to what Bush said during one of his increasingly ridiculous “Ask President Bush” sessions:

Let me put it to you bluntly: In a changing world, we want more people to have control over your own life. And that's a difference -- there's a difference in philosophy, when you think about it. A lot of the government policies are, you know, as I like to put it: we'll give you the orders and you pay the bills. (Laughter.) If you really think about it, there's a philosophical divide here in this campaign. My judgment is, government ought to be empowering people by giving them more control over their lives.

Sounds good to me. I sure don’t want the big ol’ fedrul guvmit giving me orders and then sending me bills. I want “limited government” too!

But here again, the abstract narrative doesn’t fit with reality. I’ve argued before that Americans overwhelmingly favor “big” government – or more precisely, they have a set of priorities that they are unwilling to cut federal spending on (entitlements, for instance). You can label that however you want – “big” or “small” or anything in between. Thus, what we are actually fighting over are a few points in the marginal tax rate, along with the allocation of a small percentage of the overall federal budget. Don’t get me wrong, these small percentages have enormous consequences – but they won’t usher in an age of “big” or “small” government.

So that brings me to my point. I’ve been reading an excellent book on the 1890s called “The Reckless Decade” by H.W. Brands. It puts the current debate over “limited government” into a new light. On some level, this entire debate is absurd. It’s sort of like arguing about whether you should get a Diet Coke to accompany an all-you-can-eat buffet of fried fattening food. But I don’t like that analogy because it treats government intervention as if it were something bad. Progressives need to do a better job explaining why government intervention has helped America – and indeed helps Americans every day in ways they rarely even think about anymore. So today, in an effort to show what life looked like under a truly “limited government,” I wanted to turn back the clock to the 1890s.

Brands does an excellent job hitting all the major events and developments of the 1890s – corporate consolidation by people like Carnegie and Rockefeller; the fierce, bloody labor battles; the populist movement; the election of 1896; the technological innovations; the eternal shame of Plessy and our race relations; the Spanish-American War. It’s great stuff. But the chapter I want to focus on was called “How the Other Half Lived.” The name came from a book (by the same name) published in 1890 by Jacob Riis. Riis led his readers on a tour of the poverty-stricken tenement housing of early New York (inhabited mostly by new immigrants).

It’s not a pleasant picture. He offers images of large families that are crowded in dingy tenements that burn down frequently. Cholera outbreaks are also frequent because of the sanitation problems, and garbage and stench are everywhere. And let’s not forget about working conditions that existed in the 1890s when we let business do pretty much whatever it wanted to – and to consolidate into larger and larger entities: No minimum wage. No limit to the workday. Child labor. Unsafe working conditions. Pollution. It goes on and on.

I suppose I demagoguing a bit. But it’s important to realize that these conditions did not improve until government intervened. This sort of rational intervention was one of the intellectual foundations of the early Progressives (1890-1920, or so), who believed that government could be used to check the excesses of business and help people who have less bargaining power. Progressives realized early on that laissez-faire was no longer compatible with the new realities of urban, industrial life. It’s a vision that modern progressives should celebrate, rather than always shying away from and apologizing for. People today can bitch about “big government” because “big government intervention” has given them the luxury to do so.

The benefits of government intervention are so common that they have become invisible to the modern eye. Thus, people forget both the conditions that existed before, and the struggle it took to make things better. I mean, think of all the things that you probably never even think about on a daily basis – clean water, sanitary food, parks in cities, the minimum wage, the weekend, the forty-hour work week, housing codes, fire codes, anti-discrimination laws, anti-child labor laws, national parks, state parks, Social Security, sanitation facilities, voting rights for women, public education, the interstate system. All of these resulted from government intervention – indeed, many of them were the fruits of decades-long efforts by the early Progressives. These benefits that people enjoy every single day of their lives did not pop up spontaneously from a benevolent free market, or from industry executives. They were created in spite of them – and over their sometimes fierce opposition.

What's crazy is that the current debate over “limited government” takes place under the silent assumption that almost none of these "big" government measures will be overturned. That’s what I mean when I say we're having a “Diet-Coke-at-the-buffet” debate – we’re only arguing about the margins. But make no mistake – Americans prefer living in a world with substantial government intervention, even if they don’t realize it when the choice is presented as between “big” versus “small” government. That’s because the reality of limited government is intolerable. Limited government stands silent in the face of a cruel Darwinian world where the strong prosper and the weak don’t. People don’t starve anymore, and that wasn’t true 100, or even 50 years ago. Government intervention has made this country a better place time and time again, and in ways that most people don’t even realize.

I should make clear that I’m not in favor of abandoning Clinton/Blair/Rubin economics, which I find quite compelling. I just wish that current progressives would pay a little bit more respect to the efforts of the old ones. Government can be good. We should start saying it more often.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004



I usually don't link to articles unless I feel I have something to add to them. But in this case, I'll make an exception. Yglesias has written a very persuasive argument about how Bush's inability or unwillingness to wrestle with complexities and nuance hurts America, and costs lives. Go read it here.

Also, on a totally unrelated point, if you want to see a perfect example of conservative legal narratives in action (which I discussed Sunday night), go read this article by Professor Stephen Presser (via Feddie). This is exactly what I was talking about earlier this week. Presser explains:

Bush sewed up my vote when he promised, during the last presidential election, that he would seek to nominate judges who would limit their roles to interpreting the law.

. . .

There are, of course, critics of the Rehnquist Court who claim that in rulings like its rejection of parts of the federal Violence Against Women Act, the Court has been more "activist" than even the Warren Court. By this charge, these critics suggest that the Rehnquist Court is engaging in the kind of judicial legislation I'm excoriating. But when justices are seeking to return the Constitution to its original understanding, as the majority did in the Rehnquist Court's federalism decisions [Ed. note - i.e., cases without any textual justification, just like Roe], they are not legislating. They are following the people's will as expressed in their Constitution—as The Federalist No. 78 mandates.

Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.

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