Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

27 September 2007

Ahmadinejad Speaks?

When Charlie Rose begins to sound and act like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, you know that something strange is going on. That’s what happened the night he “interviewed” President Ahmadinejad of Iran.

I put “interviewed” in quotes because Rose acted nothing like his normal self. You can tell when he likes and respects his guests: he lets them do most of the talking. The more he disagrees or is bored with a guest, the more he interrupts and blusters.

By the time I turned my TV off in disgust, Rose was preaching to Ahmadinejad—an elected leader of a sovereign nation—as if he were an errant school boy. Rose had completely lost his cool, let alone any semblance of the masterful interviewer he once was.

Like it or not, Ahmadinejad is an important figure on the world stage. I want to know what he thinks, what he knows, how he thinks, and what motivates him. I want to know whether it was his idea to do the “talk show” circuit here, or whether his boss (Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomenei) ordered him to do so.

Everything we can learn about this man, both good and bad, might help us make peace, avoid war, or make war less painful if it comes. The first rule in any conflict is “know thy enemy.”

God knows we can’t rely on our current leadership to judge Ahmadinejad astutely, or even objectively. So we all ought to get to know this man and judge him for ourselves.

Maybe Rose is getting senile. But as far as I can tell, his interview was a just metaphor for Ahmadinejad’s entire experience in our country. We lectured Ahmadinejad. We reviled him. We cursed him. We preached to him. We insulted him. Very few of us ever bothered to listen to him, let alone to pose the kind of subtle and delicate question that might get him to reveal more about himself and his policies than he had come prepared to reveal.

Although I abhor what I have read about some of Ahmadinejad’s speeches, I felt a grudging personal respect for this enigmatic, diminutive man. Here he came, right into the lion’s den. He was speaking to people who still had his slogans “Death to America” and “The Great Satan” ringing in their ears. Yet he remained cool and calm, while everyone around him tripped over themselves in anger, frustration and self-righteousness. His performance was impressive, while ours was an embarrassment and a collective national shame.

At the risk of further eroding my anonymity, I have to reveal that I am of Jewish descent, for the point is relevant in this context. I’m assimilated, and all of my immediate relatives were lucky enough to leave Europe before the Nazis’ über-pogrom began. So I have less direct experience of the Holocaust than many. But I think I understand the revulsion felt by Jews and non-Jews alike when anyone denies its reality. Playing fast and loose with history never leads to anything good.

Unfortunately, Ahmadinejad is not the only one to play fast and loose with history. Japan’s leaders have never come to grips with Japan’s wartime atrocities in China and Korea. The Turks have never acknowledged their genocide in Armenia. Yet we have perfectly cordial relations with both Japan and Turkey. Russia still considers its brutal half-century domination of Eastern Europe as a variant of normal relations with one’s neighbors, but its fantastic view in that regard hardly figures in our complex relationship with our erstwhile rival.

These three countries perpetrated the horrors they deny or ignore. The Holocaust is nothing of Iran’s doing.

Could it be that we ourselves have also played a game of historical amnesia? We used power politics and our dominant postwar position to install a friendly despot in Iran. That despot ruled Iran for two decades, imposing a foreign culture and foreign values on a proud people with an ancient history.

When the inevitable reaction came, very few lives were lost. But we were so aghast at Iran’s temerity in choosing its own destiny—and taking our hostages—that we put it on our blacklist. We openly supported Saddam in his eight-year senseless war with Iran, just to cut it down to size.

In that war, over a million people perished on both sides. Think about that. Iran’s population today is about 70 million. If you assume that Iran incurred about half the losses in that senseless war, a comparable proportional loss of our population would be over two million people.

Now suppose that a foreign country had subverted our government and installed a puppet, whom we took twenty years to remove. Then suppose that that same country had openly encouraged Mexico to wage war on us, perhaps with innovative biological weapons. Suppose further that we lost two million people in that war, which accomplished nothing but filled graves on both sides.

Suppose that that costly war is still fresh in the minds of many living today. Finally, suppose that that same inimical foreign country had the power—as we do over Iran with our nuclear submarines—to eradicate us utterly in fifteen minutes. Don’t you think our foreign policy toward that country might be a bit irrational, governed by fear, hatred and loathing?

I have often wondered what would happen if our national leaders apologized to Iran and its people for the horrors we have visited upon them. Could we contain our anger at a single Iranian leader’s denial of horrors that neither he nor his country caused, at least long enough to recognize the horrors that we have directly caused Iran?

An apology costs nothing. Colin Powell knows that. His apology to China in the 2001 spy-plane incident averted what could have been a new Cold War. It cemented what has become a rocky but cooperative and profitable relationship.

Apologizing to Iran wouldn’t mean letting our guard down. I am on record on this blog as favoring limited military deterrence of Iran if it seeks to build aggressive weaponry, including nukes. But you can apologize while building up your unmanned air power, keeping it ready if needed to destroy Iran’s missile factories and nuclear weapons plants.

What an apology would do is show our humanity. It might even give Iran’s leaders a reason to suspect that, for the first time in half a century, we are begrudgingly willing, within limits, to let this proud and ancient people go their own way in the world.

Apologizing would be such a simple, costless, human act. It would put Iranian leaders on the spot to show their humanity, too. Otherwise, they would risk justifying an international impression that they are aggressors after all. It would be such a surprising and welcome act that it might even restore some of the moral authority that George W. Bush has squandered so recklessly.

I can only imagine one candidate for our presidency having the brains and humanity to conceive of, let alone perform, such an act, along with the toughness to do what is necessary if things turn sour. In the meantime, we shout at, berate, and insult the diminutive Ahmadinejad, proving that you can have all the free speech you want but still not be civilized.

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24 September 2007

The Dems’ Fatal Mistake?

Do politicians live in the same world that you and I do? I don’t think so, and I don’t think party matters. Both parties live in a never-never land of polls, pals, and posturing that has little to do with the real world.

The Bushies fell into never-never land first. As they left the real world behind, they invented a new logical fallacy. If you like the fancy Latin names that college courses use for fallacies, you could call theirs the “debet esse, ergo est” fallacy. “It ought to be, therefore it is.”

Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld set the pace. They figured that Saddam was a bad guy, so the Iraqis would greet us with flowers and song if we deposed him. They ought to be grateful to us, right? We all know how that turned out.

Then Rumsfeld went one better. We are so smart and so strong. Our equipment and our troops are so good. Anyway, we don’t have nearly as many troops as our best generals say we need. So we ought to be able to make do with one-third that many, right? It’s just got to work.

Bush’s social-security plan was on the same plane. None of my buddies, he thought, would ever invest in the type of safe, boring, low-return investments that social security seeks. Our workers would do fine if they took more risk for more return, just like my buddies. We’ll get them to invest their own money—which the government makes them pay—in the private market. They ought to love that idea, and they ought to do just fine.

But the workers didn’t love it. The recent collapse of the mortgage-backed hedge funds showed why. There’s a reason why greater risk brings greater return: you can lose everything. In the real world, people who don’t have a lot to lose don’t take big risks.

After six years of this nonsense, the public began to get restive. The last straw was the year 2006, when Iraq disintegrated in a sectarian bloodbath that no one foresaw or prepared for. Then the public began to sour on the GOP.

You would think the Dems might have learned from their rivals’ mistakes. You would think they might have opened their Washington curtains once in a while just to see what’s going on in the world. No such luck. Like the GOP, the Dems just listen to each other.

Now the Dems are doing the same dance. The GOP really screwed things up in Iraq, they think. We’ve got them on the run. The Bushies ought to fail in Iraq because they are so damned incompetent. Their abject failure there ought to give us a big break. It ought to put us in the majority for the next several election cycles.

But when all you care about is Washington politics, you can miss some pretty big changes in the real world, where the rest of us live. Debet esse, ergo est.

Three things in Iraq have changed dramatically over the last year. First and foremost, we have a new team. Compared to That Idiot Rumsfeld and his band of sycophants, SecDef Gates, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are the New York Yankees. They took some time to clean house and get organized, but they’re starting to pull together.

You can see the difference from the other side of the TV screen: these are smart, serious men who know what they’re doing. For the first time in five years, official news conferences on the war are actually starting to make sense.

The second big change is our first lucky break. On their own accord, the Sunnis decided that they hate us less than the Qaeda troops who are killing their families, blowing up their communities, taking their women, and forcing them to give up their secular vices. The Sunnis are a decisive people; that’s part of why they’ve had the upper hand in the region for over a millennium. Their change of heart is a big break for us and for Iraq.

The third possibly big change in Iraq is a combination of two smaller changes. The Shiites are starting to fight among themselves. The smart ones among them know that’s precisely why they’ve served as the Sunnis’ footstools for over a millennium. There is a chance that maybe, just maybe, they’ll wise up and rediscover an ancient truism: in unity there is strength.

At the same time, Iraq’s neighbors are getting worried. They are beginning to understand that starting World War III in their own backyard might not be such a bright idea. With the exception of Iran, they are beginning to plot how to tamp down the fire, not inflame it.

Every sports fan knows you don’t throw a game when you’ve just brought in your best lineup and have gotten your first lucky break. So what do the Dems in Congress do? They stick with their original game plan: declare failure and push to leave as quickly as possible. Devil take the hindmost, and hope the hindmost are Iraqis, not us.

The GOP screwed up so badly, they think. They were so stupid, so stubborn. We’ve got to win because they did so badly on Iraq. We’ve got to win because the people want us out of this losing war, and we Dems want to end it. Debet esse, ergo est.

That “General Betray Us” ad was just the icing on the cake. Whoever wrote it apparently yearns for a Guiliani or Romney presidency.

Only two things in life are sure: change happens, and flexibility wins. Sometimes change is even for the better. The more resilient you are, the better you do in war, politics, or sports.

Bush’s popularity ratings are around 30% because everyone sees how inflexible he has been. In a recent poll, Congress is down near 11% because it has been just as inflexible and far more ineffectual. Its members do nothing but squabble, in wholly predictable ways, accomplishing nothing. And the Dems wonder why their margin of loss in the Senate—so close and yet so far—is growing larger.

Iraq is not Vietnam. Only someone with George W. Bush’s knowledge and intelligence could think it is.

There are at least a dozen reasons why the analogy is false, but I’ll mention only three. First, anticolonial sentiment does exist in Iraq, but it’s a pale shadow of the driving force behind our loss in Vietnam: a decades-long struggle to free that nation from Western domination, beginning with the French. Second, Vietnam had a single people, united by language, culture and history. Only Western colonization interrupted their unity. Iraq is exactly the opposite: it’s a country only because colonial powers, in their own self-interest, stitched together three distinct peoples. Finally, there is no jungle canopy in Iraq; air power works.

This doesn’t mean that we can stabilize Iraq. What it does mean is that Vietnam is irrelevant. There are only two applicable lessons from Vietnam. The first is to be cautious about foreign military entanglements. George W. Bush ignored that lesson. Now we have to figure out how best to extract our limbs from the tar baby that his blunders have made Iraq. The second lesson is how to fight insurgencies. General Petraeus seems to have learned that one well; he wrote a book about it.

So the proper stance on Iraq now is wait and see where the three changes lead. Only one benchmark really matters to us: our own casualty rate. On the Iraqi side, it’s local elections—whether they happen at all and, if they do, their results. We all should watch and wait.

It’s not good strategy to bet against your country and an ostensible ally (Iraq) that you’ve sweated blood and tears to help. The American people are inveterate optimists. If there is any sign of a turnaround in Iraq as the elections draw near, the Dems who are running for the exits now are going to lose big.

It’ll be interesting to see which Dems first see the light. As usual, my bets are on Obama.

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19 September 2007

Putin, Zubkov, and Their Lessons for Us

We still view Russia and Vladimir Putin through a Cold-War lens of fear and paranoia. Putin may not be what we would call a “small-d” democrat. As he has come to understand the depth of Russia’s social and economic problems, he has become more authoritarian.

I don’t think Putin yearns to become another tsar. But he is getting frustrated at the slow pace of change in Russia. He wants to accomplish more in the short time that he (or any leader) has to set the direction of a huge and complex society. The result may seem at times like a return to Russia’s dismal past. It is not.

Yet however you view Putin’s authoritarian turn, one thing is clear. He is an extremely smart man. With the possible exception of the two Chinese leaders (Hu Jintao and Wen Jaibao) and Germany’s Angela Merkel, Putin has more raw brainpower than any national leader on the world stage today.

To give just one example of his many accomplishments, in late 2001, after September 11, Putin gave a path-breaking speech, in fluent German, before the German Bundestag. In it, he put a decisive end to the Cold War. He repudiated any idea of Russia backsliding into authoritarianism and promised constructive partnership with Germany. He said that “we are all to blame for what happened” on 9/11 and pleged cooperation on security with Europe and the United States. So far he has kept that promise. And despite the recent tiff over natural gas prices in Europe, Germany is now Russia’s biggest trading partner.

Putin was then a visionary. I believe he still is—just one whose views are tempered, and perhaps jaundiced, by repeated contact with intractable reality in his own country.

So when Putin does something so unexpected as to appoint a virtual unknown as Russia’s prime minister, we should pay attention. More is going on than just anointing a figurehead so Putin can rule from the sidelines after he leaves office. Putin is sending a message, at least to Russia and perhaps to the rest of the world. When a man with his brains and vision sends a message, we should all read it carefully.

We in the West know little about Viktor Zubkov, Putin’s appointee. But we do know three things about him. He has cooperated closely with the West in fighting terrorism. He has spent a lot of time fighting money laundering and other forms of corruption. And Putin has claimed repeatedly—with no ground for refutation that we can discern—that Zubkov is an honest man.

Could it be that Putin is identifying qualities essential to Russia’s future? Could he be suggesting that the usual suspects for his successor, Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, may not possess them? If so, Putin is implicitly identifying terrorism and corruption as the chief threats to a bright future for Russia, and perhaps for any diverse modern nation.

Iran’s Ahmadinejad and our own George W. Bush may dream of bilateral Armageddon, Texas style. But Putin is smart enough to know that the twentieth century is over. Its continent-wide wars with their rivers of blood are things of the past. He implied as much in his 2001 speech.

Even rogue states like North Korea and Iran cannot bring the twentieth century’s horrors back. One reason: a single nuclear submarine could obliterate either of them in fifteen minutes, if it came to that.

That’s not likely to happen. North Korea is in the process of backing down or being bought off, depending on how you look at it. Iran may be in the process of coming to its senses, as the moderate and pragmatic Rafsanjani outmaneuvers Ahmadinejad to become Speaker of the Assembly of Experts, which will pick Iran’s next Supreme Leader when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dies. As for George W. Bush, he’ll be gone in about sixteen months, and the United States may have intelligent leadership once again.

So twentieth-century-style warfare is largely obsolete. Putin understands that. He also has the imagination to understand the existential threat that terrorism poses to Russia and to every civilized part of the world.

If you think that Putin’s Russia and Hu’s China are authoritarian, or that our own country is becoming more so, wait until a terrorist nuke explodes in one of their cities. The reaction and clampdown will bring George Orwell’s dark vision to life. Putin is smart enough to understand that and to devote a substantial portion of his country’s still-limited resources to fighting terrorism. If someone as smart as Putin were our own leader, you could bet that Al Qaeda Central would no longer be in operation, in Pakistan or wherever else it might be hiding.

Our own country hasn’t done much yet to exterminate our chief terrorist threat. But we all understand, at least in the abstract, the menace that terrorism poses for civilization. So Putin’s implicit warning about corruption warrants more attention.

Corruption is a much more subtle threat than terrorism. Today it can drain a society far more quickly than in the past. In Tom Friedman’s flat world, capital and talent flow out of corrupt societies into stable, honest ones. That can happen with the speed of international commerce and migration. In a flat world, the less corrupt society wins—and wins rapidly. Smart people and smart money move wherever conditions are fairer, more rational and more conducive to innovation and business.

That’s precisely what Putin is worried about. Now that they are free to move, capital and talented people are flowing out of Russia and into the West and Asia at an alarming rate. The reasons are the remnants Soviet-style bossism and cronyism, combined with so-called “oligarchs” and organized crime. These negative elements control and dominate business in Russia. They ultimately force bright people with good ideas to emigrate. In choosing an honest man whose personal history promises a valiant fight against corruption, Putin may be tackling the single greatest challenge to his country and its people.

China can avoid this problem for the time being only because it’s so big, and because its money and people are not yet entirely free to move. Yet even now China suffers a severe “brain drain.” Many Chinese come here to study, taste freedom and a level playing field for business, and never return. Whether China can continue, let alone expand, the “reverse brain drain” of talent attracted back by its rapid growth depends upon how quickly and effectively China can get its corruption problem under control. China’s leaders seem to be aware of the problem.

So Putin’s appointment of Zubkov sends a message of warning, not just to Russia, but to all the world. Terrorism and corruption threaten the well-being and prosperity of every modern industrial society. They are the twenty-first century’s universal problems.

Putin also sends a message of exhortation and hope: honesty in a leader may be the most important quality of all. Putin himself showed this quality several years ago. Responding to a foreign reporter’s question, he unashamedly named poverty in Russia as the country’s greatest problem and his greatest embarrassment. After nearly seven years of Bush and Cheney, plus Alberto Gonzales’ brief but comically Orwellian regime at Justice, we Americans would welcome that sort of honesty in our leaders.

But what about Putin’s warnings? In a previous post, I have outlined how lax we have been about facing our worst enemy, and how seriously we need to take Al Qaeda Central—and exterminate it as soon as possible. I won’t repeat the analysis here. Suffice it to say that Putin’s warning is something we, too, should take to heart.

As for corruption, we are by no means immune to this universal human failing. Our society is more advanced, legally and politically, than Russia’s and China’s, so our corruption takes different forms. We don’t have as much outright bribery, direct use of “muscle,” or outright racketeering. But we do have some bald bribery. We also have plenty of corruption that takes a more subtle form but is equally corrosive. We try to control it by regulating and exposing it, but often we succeed only in legitimizing it or driving it into still more subtle expression. It is a perennial battle and one that we have been gradually losing over the last fifty years.

How are we Americans corrupt? Let me count the ways. Campaign financing as practiced today is institutionalized corruption, even without aberrations like the Norman Hsu scandal. Earmarks are a form of corruption that is undermining our legislature, our checks and balances, and our democracy. Lobbying as practiced today is a form of corruption, especially when it undermines the public interest and prevents voices representing the public even from being heard. Our rich pharmaceutical companies corrupt public policy with huge donations and massive lobbying. They corrupt the practice of medicine through massive marketing and subtle “gifts” to physicians, including free samples of drugs and slanted promotional material masquerading as helpful research. Our insurance companies corrupt the political process so they can continue to exploit the lucrative field of health insurance while decrying “socialized” medicine and incurring administrative expenses several times higher than comparable government programs incur.

Our most corrosive forms of corruption occur in the area of our greatest pre-eminence: business. Our antitrust laws no longer work. For two decades they’ve allowed a single company to dominate and control one of our most innovative and important industries—computer software. Microsoft has its hands on or in almost every advance in personal-computer technology, being challenged only recently—and only indirectly—by Google's rise and the popularity of open-source software.

Multiple corrupting forces threaten our innovation and industry. For the first time in our history, we who built our national pre-eminence on science and technology have allowed religious zeal to restrict scientific research. Our patent laws allow firms to suppress innovation and whole industries with junk patents that owe more to patent lawyers’ skill than to innovative science and engineering. Our chief executives collude to jack up each others’ salaries to a level which no one but they can justify, leading to national and international embarrassment. And over all lies the pall of Enron-style fraud and malfeasance, which is becoming increasingly common, with over 2,000 firms restating their financial results.

Our energy industry is massively corrupt. The fossil fuel industries have a stranglehold on politics at the federal level and in many states. As their reserves run out and their sources of raw materials become increasingly controlled by forces inimical to our national security, they use political leverage to maintain gargantuan state subsidies. At the same time they manage to preclude both subsidies and fair entry to sources of energy that pollute less and offer greater national security. The extent to which the coal industry—the greatest polluter of all—controls some state governments is, or should be, a national scandal.

Taken separately, none of these phenomena may seem particularly alarming. None of them seems as acute, for example, as China’s regulator taking bribes to let industrial chemicals poison food and drugs. But taken together, they represent a distinct downward trend in national innovation, flexibility, resilience, and our ability to attract talent and nimble capital.

Already some brains with ethnic or family connections to Asia and Europe have started to drain. If we don’t want to see this trickle of “reverse brain drain” become a flood, we need to attend to our knitting.

The danger is particularly acute in biotechnology. Great minds that can solve the mysteries of our own origin, genetics and molecular functioning are simply not going to put up with third-rate minds spouting scripture and telling them what they can do. Today they don’t have to. A growing number of civilized nations with fine standards of living welcome them with open doors, open minds, and open pocketbooks.

Our country is still the best place in the world to do business and scientific research. But its lead over others is narrowing, and our trendline is down.

So as we assess Putin’s appointment of Zubkov, let us learn the lessons we must. Terrorism is a threat we all must face, directly, forcefully and effectively. If we do not, nothing else may matter. A single terrorist nuke in New York or Washington would change our self-image, our culture, our laws, our society and our future forever.

As for corruption, it is not just a foreign problem. It lurks here at home, often in ways so subtle that we barely recognize them.

Like it or not, the world’s nations are in a race to provide an environment most conducive to scientific research and innovative business. Corruption is a large part of that environment, and the society that has the least of it will win. In the perennial human struggle with corruption, and in the race to suppress it, we need to stop finding fault in others and start getting our own house in order. Like the bell that tolls, Putin’s sage warnings to his own people are also for us.

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15 September 2007

Killed for a Photo Op

If anyone needs further proof of the boundless stupidity and abysmal judgment of George W. Bush and his political commissars, yesterday’s tragic assassination provided it. Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, our chief Sunni ally in our fight with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), was blown away by a roadside bomb.

That tragedy came less than two weeks after Bush’s highly publicized, six-hour visit to our tightly secured air base in Anbar. During that trip, a smiling, joking Bush shook hands with Sattar while a few out-of-uniform Iraqis looked on.

A film clip widely aired on TV during Bush’s recent PR push showed the scene. Sattar was dressed in the flowing white robes that are his culture’s formal attire. He looked uncomfortable, perhaps frightened. He and one of the Iraqi onlookers, probably an aide of Sattar’s, shook hands with Bush. Sattar never smiled, and the aide barely managed a forced smile as he shook hands. We can infer from their expressions and body language that their appearance in the photo op was not their idea, but a command performance in support of the Bush’s PR campaign.

Was that photo op a direct cause of Sattar’s assassination? We many never know for sure, but the chances are better than even.

Sattar came to our side in part because AQI had killed his father and two brothers for refusing to go along with their murderous, extremist plans. He was a marked man. Like bin Laden and Saddam after our invasion, he had to keep a low profile and stay hidden to survive. What better way to risk his neck than to use him for a Bush photo op? What better way to let the entire world—including all the Sunnis still angry with us or sitting on the fence—know that he’s working closely with us and see what he looks like? Sattar may have been a marked man beforehand, but that photo op drove up both his “target value” to AQI and his operational visibility by an order of magnitude. No doubt Sattar and the other Iraqi looked uncomfortable because they knew that the photo op was Sattar’s death warrant.

That disastrous photo op is a metaphor for Bush’s handling of the entire war. For him, it’s all about him and all about politics. The need for effective strategy and tactics, often including stealth and a low profile, never enters his pea brain. All that matters is his own popularity and proving to daddy that he’s “makin’ a difference.”

Bush’s inappropriate, jocular, frat-boy demeanor during the meeting with Sattar showed what novelist E.L. Doctorow called his “moral vacancy.” He seemed to have no clue of the seriousness of the situation or the risk that his political ploy posed for people putting their own and their families’ lives on the line for us. He is a moral moron.

Two days ago I posted a piece suggesting that, with General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, we now have outstanding operational leadership of our effort in Iraq for the first time in the nearly seven years since Bush began plotting this disastrous misadventure. After watching an extended interview last night with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, I would add his name to the list of anomalously competent people in the Bush Administration.

So for the first time in nearly seven years, Bush has a highly competent team focused on saving him and us from the consequences of his repeated disastrous blunders.

Bush’s legacy, and perhaps our collective future, depend upon that team. The best thing that Bush himself can do for the next sixteen months is to stand aside, stand down Rove’s remaining political commissars, let the new team run the war, and keep a low profile. Lest he get bored being a figurehead, Bush can do what he does best: commune with Jesus and pray that his new team’s competence will save him from his own stupidity.

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13 September 2007

Iraq’s Last Chance

In the aftermath of General Petraeus’ and Ambassador Crocker’s testimony, a single question troubles everyone’s mind. Has anything in Iraq really changed?

Political reconciliation is on the ropes. Violence and sectarian hatred still rule Iraq’s streets. Doubters accuse the Bush Administration—and even Petraeus and Crocker themselves—of cooking the books on the grim statistics of civil war and insurgency. Supporters have to use a microscope to see any improvement.

But two things have changed in Iraq. In the grand scheme of things, they are significant, although neither has much directly to do with the surge.

The first big change is something about which modesty precludes Petraeus and Crocker from commenting. From all accounts, Bush and his team began planning to invade Iraq in the very first months of their Administration. That means they’ve been at it for almost seven years. In all that time, we’ve never had outstanding operational leadership. Now we do.

That’s what happens in wartime. As war’s seriousness and loss impinge on the national psyche, sycophancy, political pandering, glad-handing and bureaucratic skill become less attractive. The go-along-to-get-along mentality gets replaced by knowing what you are doing. War demands it.

It can take a long time for that to happen. It did in our own Civil War. Lincoln went through several generals before he found an ex-drunk named U.S. Grant who could hope to match wits with Robert E. Lee. It certainly took a long time here. Four years of heavy casualties and countless blunders were a high price to pay.

But change has finally come, and with wartime speed. General Petraeus went right from two stars to four, and he deserved it. He has MacArthur’s intelligence and skill, without the arrogance. You don’t have to be a soldier or military strategist to see that he is the best thing our Defense Department has seen anywhere near Iraq in seven years.

Ambassador Crocker is much the same. Intelligent, fluent in two Iraqi languages, persistent, and frank, he is capable of tackling a nearly impossible task and seems eager to do so.

Sure, the hour is late. Sure, the Administration’s many blunders have left Petraeus and Crocker trying to bail out a swimming pool with a teaspoon. Sure, we still could use the 300,000 troops that we should have had there from the beginning. But, for the first time in seven years, we have outstanding operational leadership. That’s something.

Not only that. Two other factors increase the benefits of the two men’s competence. First, they work together like hand and glove. Not for Petraeus is Rumsfeld’s oafish desire to control everything and decide nothing. Both men realize the job is more political than military, and they work well together. Second, George W. Bush, having exhausted all of his and his cronies’ ideological stupidity, now seems inclined to follow the advice of people who actually know what they are doing.

The second change has been much discussed, but its implications are broader than has been generally realized. Sunni sheikhs in Anbar and a few other places have begun to work with Coalition forces to stop Al Qaeda’s terrible and pointless mayhem. They are offering their sons to take their streets back with the aid of our weapons and training.

This point has broad implications. For the first time since our invasion, all three major groups in Iraq are beginning to see us as a benign force—or at least more benign than the other forces they are fighting. The Kurds have always seen us that way because our “no fly” zone protected them from Saddam and allowed them to develop their thriving democracy. The Shiites initially saw us that way because we got rid of Saddam’s vicious tyranny, although some have come to see us differently since. Now the Sunnis are beginning to understand that we are not there to oppress them or to hand their future to the Shiites, but only want to stop Al Qaeda and the violence and leave.

Of course these views are not universal among any of the three groups, with the possible exception of the Kurds. Many Shiites and Sunnis still see us as infidel occupiers. But Muqtada al Sadr has promised to stand down his Mahdi Army for six months. Most Shiites and Sunnis are now grudgingly willing to work with us, if only to take advantage of our support, weapons and training for a coming Armageddon with each other.

If this analysis is right, a virtuous circle might replace the vicious circle we have seen since the bombing of the Golden Mosque. As more Iraqis come to see us as benign—and our congressional debates as a guarantee that we won’t be there forever—fewer of them will target our troops. As more Iraqis come to see foreign jihadis, Al Qaeda, extremists, and criminals as their enemies, and not us, they will work to suppress our biggest sources of casualties.

In other words, there is a possibility that our own casualties may decrease, perhaps even faster than Iraqi casualties. If that happens, the losses that matter most to us may decrease, reducing some of the political pressure for untimely withdrawal and allowing us to recede from a combat role.

If this analysis is more than wishful thinking, we have been looking at the wrong benchmarks for success. We shouldn’t be looking at violence, whose causes and motives are hard to interpret. Nor should we be looking at Iraqi casualties, which are notoriously hard to measure. We should be looking at our own casualties, which we record and measure with mathematical precision. If they go down, then the favorable virtuous circle suggested here may be in place. If they go up, it is not.

The second benchmark is political. But it is not the kind of political progress that requires analysis to interpret. It is simply whether the long-promised provincial elections have occurred and, if they have, the kinds of people who are elected.

In the grand scheme of things, local elections may be the most important benchmark of all. They far are more important than oil sharing, especially now that, according to Crocker, the central government is starting to pass revenue to Sunni provinces even without a governing law in place.

Local elections are vital. They will foster, encourage, and build upon the “bottom up” reorganization of Iraqi society that Petraeus and Crocker hope is beginning. More than that, the type of people the various factions and regions elect will tell us whether they are preparing for a peaceful society or an all-out war when we leave.

The four years since our invasion have been at least as long for the Iraqis as for us. Those who have not fled their country have had four long years to reflect upon whom they can trust, who will keep their communities safe, and who will build a society that they might like to live in. They have had plenty of time to decide whether they want peace or the same kind of near-perpetual war that leveled Afghanistan. It is past time to let them pick their leaders and show their cards, town by town and province by province.

Will the Sunni sheikhs now cooperating with us stand for election or send their surrogates or proxies to do so? Will their communities support them?

Whom will the Shiites in the cities pick to lead them? Will they pick followers of al Sadr or al Hakim? Whom will they pick to lead their local communities? Will they elect extremists, anti-Americans, or imams with no political experience? Or will they go for practical folk who can protect their lives and property, keep the electricity flowing and get the sewage off the streets? It is past time for the Shiites, too, to show what they want, collectively, after four years of staring into the abyss.

The way to build democracy is to build democracy. As Tip O’Neill pointed out, all politics is local. Local elections will tell us and the Iraqis far more about whether they are ready to govern themselves than any attempt to parse or cook elusive statistics on daily mayhem caused by a tiny fraction of the population. Local elections will give us a glimpse at Iraq’s future, not its grim past or uncertain present.

So what should we do? I yield to no one in despising George W. Bush, whose patent flaws in intelligence and character have laid our country low and nearly destroyed Iraq. But our decisions about Iraq must be about Iraq, not our own poor electoral choices or domestic troubles. If for the first time ever we have outstanding leadership there, and if the Sunnis’ change of heart has given us our first lucky break, shouldn’t we at least see where these changes lead?

Our two best benchmarks are our own casualties and local elections. If the first goes down and the second go up, there may be room for progress. If the opposite occurs, then Bush and his awful crew will have screwed up the mission beyond repair. In that case we should get out as soon as we can do so safely and with due care for Iraqis who risked their lives to help us and the cause of democracy. We should be able to make that call by next spring or, if earlier, shortly after local elections.

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09 September 2007

Search-and-Seizure Heresy

In my profile for this Blog, I promise “unusual opinions,” including heresy. I’ve already treated readers to one heresy—the suggestion that we replace our awkward and ineffective impeachment process with a “no-confidence” vote like England’s and India’s. Here’s another.

In my view, our written Constitution’s outdated conceptual approach to search and seizure distorts our entire debate about electronic surveillance in the age of terrorism. A law regulating search and seizure in the Colonial era is simply inadequate to address intelligently the issues of the Internet Age. Here’s why.

Our basic search-and-seizure law is the Fourth Amendment, which reads as follows:
    “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.”
Our Founders were good writers, and they made their purpose clear and explicit. They wanted to insure citizens’ personal security “in their persons, houses, papers and effects.”

If you think of their times, the core of their concern becomes obvious. In those days there were no intangible or electronic records. Everything that the government or a court might want to seize was tangible. The way to seize it was to have burly men bearing weapons comb through the target’s house or office, tracking mud over the floor, intimidating the inhabitants, and often leaving things in disarray.

In Colonial times, a search was thus like what our troops do in Iraq today. They break down doors, herd people into small rooms, and ransack the premises looking for weapons, explosives or evidence of insurgent activity. It would be hard to imagine anything more disruptive of citizens’ personal security, sense of autonomy, and right to be let alone.

Everything in the Fourth Amendment revolves around this core concern. The requirements that searches be “reasonable” and their objects “particularly describ[ed]” help minimize disruptive intrusions into citizens’ private space by limiting the number and scope of searches. These restrictions outlaw “fishing expeditions” in which men with weapons search private places on someone’s generalized suspicion.

In these respects the Fourth Amendment is still quite relevant today. In fact, it’s even more important because of the size, diversity and anonymity of our modern society. In Colonial times the search target often knew the searchers personally and could reason with them. They were friends and neighbors. Today, the armed persons searching our homes are nearly always complete strangers, whom we trust not to maim, kill or unduly intimidate us only because of their uniforms and training. The need to trust complete strangers entering our homes and offices with arms gives the Fourth Amendment’s core concern vital importance today.

But intangible electronic communications are an entirely different matter. They can be searched for and “seized” without any intrusion and without us ever knowing that anything has happened.

Without losing my anonymity, I can reveal that I have had substantial experience with electronics, computers and communication technology. I have a pretty good mental picture of the innumerable wires, antennae, switches, nodes, computers, and systems through which my phone conversations and e-mails flow before reaching their destination. I am conscious of how little control over their transmission I have, and how many chances there are to incept them, once they leave the wires or antennae inside my home.

As a result, I have never had any illusion of complete and absolute privacy in electronic communication. I always assumed that someone could be, or might be, listening to or reading what I say or write. When I was younger, I would sometimes hear suspicious clicks and pops on my telephone line. I would often respond by saying, “Hi, J. Edgar”—or some less printable greeting —assuming that former FBI head J. Edgar Hoover or one of his minions might be listening.

All this didn’t bother me much. The fact that some unknown, anonymous person might overhear my electronic speech wasn’t and isn’t anywhere near as threatening as a burly guy with a weapon coming unbidden into my home and rummaging through my bedroom, files and closets. There was no personal intimidation or disruption, only a vague unease that speech I would rather keep private might be overheard—and likely soon filed and forgotten—somewhere in the vast bowels of the federal government.

What did concern me was what the government might do with private information it might have gained without my knowledge or consent. And in that concern I had some comfort. A legal doctrine called the “exclusionary rule” prevented (and still prevents) intercepted information from being used in criminal proceedings unless the search or seizure that got it was covered by a proper warrant or was reasonable.

That left only the small residual concern that my private thoughts might be recorded in some musty, neglected file somewhere in the archives of a police or intelligence service. That possibility raised some questions, discussed below, but nowhere near the same concern as men with weapons rummaging through my home or office.

It seems to me that debates over electronic surveillance miss this crucial distinction. Physical invasions of one’s home or other private spaces are intrusive, intimidating, disruptive and often terrifying. We still need legal protection against them, even more than in Colonial times. For in physical intrusion the mere fact of the search or seizure is as important as—and often more important than—the result.

But interceptions of our electronic communications are a different matter. In the nature of things, we don’t even know that they are taking place. So they can’t intimidate or terrify us, and they don’t disrupt our daily lives. In that case, what concerns us, or what should concern us, is not the bare fact of a “search or seizure,” but its result. What does or can the government do with the information it has intercepted?

Here again, my personal concerns are limited. I don’t really care whether a computer somewhere is parsing all of my e-mails for words like “jihad,” “martyr,” or other evidence of Islamic extremism. To me, automated review of that sort differs little, technically or practically, from the automated process of storing and forwarding that my messages undergo, in innumerable unknown nodes, while the Internet’s standard software protocols work their magic. If our intelligence services can use automated review like that to catch terrorists and prevent their attacks, more power to them.

I also don’t care much if our intelligence services use human beings—whose interpretive power is far greater than any existing computer’s—to second-guess computers’ rough results. Like many bloggers, I use a commercial hit-logging site to measure traffic to this Blog. Occasionally, it records hits whose origins and IP addresses are completely unknown. I assume that at least some of these hits may be national or foreign intelligence services keeping tabs on what I say.

I don’t mind a bit. If a computer cannot do so, I believe that the first human to read my blog will recognize that I am no terrorist and hit the key to dump my data. I feel the same about my e-mails, although they are generally of a more private nature. If the first human review does not recognize them as innocent, the second or third probably will.

What does concern me is what might happen next. Does a government computer retain copies of my blog posts or e-mails simply because they contain suspicious key words that terrorists might use? If so, for how long and for what purpose? How many people—as distinguished from computer systems—review my communications, for how long, and for what purposes, before they are finally and permanently expunged? Can the government or “rogue” investigators review what I say out of voyeuristic curiosity? Can they intimidate or persecute me—for example, by putting my name on a terrorist watch list—just because they don’t like my personal lifestyle, my way of thinking, or my politics? If they could, they might infringe not just my Fourth Amendment rights, but my First-Amendment right to free speech as well. It is therefore subsequent use and retention, not initial interception, that in my mind require legal regulation.

More things have changed since Colonial times than the nature of our communications. The nature of threats to our personal and collective safety also have changed. In Colonial times, people lived in small towns or close-knit urban neighborhoods, and everyone knew everyone else. If would have been as impossible for a terrorist to live anonymously for several years in Colonial society as it would be today for an elephant to barge into a college classroom without being noticed.

Yet today’s far more diverse, complex and anonymous society allows unknown terrorists to live among us, in “sleeper” cells, for years without detection. That’s a fact of life. It’s what makes terrorism such a serious threat now and for the foreseeable future. Under those circumstances, we have to use every advantage of our modern technological society to overcome this key disadvantage, and we have to do so before the terrorists get their hands on nuclear weapons.

Let us suppose that we could build a computer system that could tell, with 99% accuracy, whether a person was a terrorist just by automated analysis of everyone’s e-mails. We would be fools not to use it.

Neither the Constitution nor the Fourth Amendment has anything intelligent to say on the subject because none of the conditions that we face existed when our Founders adopted them. The conditions of social anonymity that today can hide terrorists so effectively did not exist. Nor did the weapons that make them so dangerous, or the electronic systems that can help us identify and expose them without any physical intrusion into our private space. To pretend that we can solve this knotty problem by relying on the wisdom of sages from an earlier age when none of the relevant conditions existed is folly.

So what we really need to do is enhance the Fourth Amendment. It focuses on physical invasions of personal privacy that were the chief concern in the eighteenth century and are still important today. It says nothing about unknown and unknowable interceptions of intangible electronic communications that are a new concern in the twenty-first century. Yet because it focuses on “search” or “seizure”—i.e. the interception—rather than the government’s use of the information once intercepted, so does most of our law today.

As a result, our law fails to acknowledge a simple but profound fact. An unknown and unknowable interception of an intangible electronic communication produces no intrusion, no loss of autonomy, no disruption and no intimidation or other negative social impact unless and until the government does something with it.

If the government uses the information to stop a terrorist attack, I think we all would applaud that use. We can regulate or curtail more questionable uses later, by laws that address not the seizure or interception itself, but what happens afterward. Once the terrorists have been thwarted, we will have plenty of time to determine, at our leisure and with due deliberation, how other communications may or may not be used and for how long they may be retained.

There are many practical ways in which we could do so without compromising the operational details of electronic surveillance. As one example, Congress could provide for a special investigator-prosecutor to serve as civil-liberties ombudsman, with power to investigate intelligence agencies' practices and prevent unwarranted retention of collected electronic data and its misuse for purposes other than thwarting terrorism. This official could operate mostly in secret, publishing only general results that did not disclosure operational details. Congress could give him authority to bring suit in a secret court—like the current FISA court—to prohibit future abuses and to collect damages for past abuses, such as a citizen's having been put on a watch list for political reasons unrelated to terrorism. Congress also could insure this official’s public credibility by requiring Senate confirmation of his appointment, and perhaps by requiring candidates to have specified minimum experience in promoting or protecting civil liberties. A top-secret security clearance also could be required.

As it now stands, the Fourth Amendment seems to preclude any such common-sense program because it regulates only the seizure of information, not its subsequent use. It cannot solve the twenty-first-century riddle of thwarting terrorism while maintaining personal privacy in the face of intrusionless but nevertheless troubling electronic surveillance.

This is just one more respect in which our Constitution is a bit long in the tooth. We ought to amend it on this point. But we’ll never do so because we regard our Constitution as sacred. In any event, we no longer trust each other enough to countenance any meddling with our foundational document.

So we’ll continue to view this vital current issue through a lens of a bygone age. In this respect, we can only envy the British, whose unwritten constitution is far more flexible than ours. They can rely on the common sense of people still living, while we must rely on the wisdom of people long dead, as embodied in static words written over two centuries ago. Who has the more adaptive society?

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01 September 2007

A Forty Year Dry Spell

Friends often ask me why I’m so enthusiastic about Senator Barack Obama’s candidacy for president. Sometimes my enthusiasm surprises even me.

It’s not as if I’m a starry-eyed kid just becoming aware of politics. I’ve seen what ambition, greed, corruption, and stupidity can do. I lived through the Cold War, Nixon and the Vietnam War. I saw Nixon smear his way to power, relying on fear and hate to win elections and to build an imperial presidency that still threatens our Republic today. I saw good men like Adlai Stevenson and Walter Mondale swept away in a tide of cynicism and fear masquerading as realism.

But one thing more than any other shaped my view of politics. In the space of only five years, from 1963 to 1968, assassins’ bullets cut down three of the greatest leaders of my lifetime.

It’s hard for anyone born later to understand the impact of those murders. Like today, the Cold War was a time of fear, hate and uncertainty. African-Americans’ struggle for a semblance of equal opportunity was in full swing. A racist backlash reflected the ugliest face of American hate.

In the midst of all the darkness came three great leaders: President Jack Kennedy, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jack’s brother Robert—a senator, Attorney General and then a leading presidential candidate.

All three had one thing in common. Unlike lesser men, they resisted the temptation to turn to demagoguery and the Dark Side. They preached and practiced Reason and faith in American values.

If you have a religious bent, you might call their approach “strength through righteousness.” That phrase certainly fit Dr. King’s leadership style. If you have a more secular bent, you might call it “power through principle.”

But whatever you call it, one thing was clear. All three men inspired and led what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Their guiding light and motive force were the good things that once made our nation unique. They believed that we could be wise, strong, prosperous and respected by hewing to our principles.

Then, one by one, in a series of tragic gunshots, they were gone.

If only one or two had been killed, it would have been bad enough. But the murder of all three in so short a time was intellectually and emotionally devastating. I doubt that any progressive, intelligent person who lived through that era ever recovered fully from the loss. I certainly didn’t.

Of course we all did what we had to do. I supported Senator Eugene McCarthy for being first to oppose the Vietnam War. But I voted for Hubert Humphrey against Nixon in the general election of 1968. I did so holding my nose, knowing that Lyndon Johnson had pressured Humphrey not to break ranks in support of the war. If more had done the same, we could have spared the nation the trials of Nixon and Watergate.

Sometimes choosing the lesser of two evils is a wise and necessary act. But it never engenders enthusiasm.

Four decades of similarly numbing choices followed. In forty years we’ve never again seen the kind of power through principle that Jack Kennedy and Dr. King delivered and Robert Kennedy promised.

Have you even wondered why the films series Star Wars was one of the highest-grossing productions of all time? Its special effects were well done, but its story and script were mediocre, and its acting was hardly stellar. Yet it succeeded beyond its producer’s wildest dreams because it delivered a powerful and timely subconscious message.

I saw the first episode in 1977, after Watergate, our tragic loss in Vietnam, and the fall of Iran to religious extremists. My date, a psychologist, was unimpressed. She dismissed the film as a simplistic fairly tale dressed up as science fiction.

But she missed the point. Although I could not have articulated it at the time, I knew subconsciously what the Dark Side represented. So, apparently, did the rest of America.

The Dark Side was the sinister force—then largely unknown—that had laid America low. It had deprived us of our King and two Kennedys. It had put a nation founded by great minds on enduring principles in the hands of mediocrities or worse.

We all knew subconsciously what the Force stood for, too. It was the principles that make us Americans, which once made America great and can again. It stood for men and women who lead us toward the light.

In the depths of despair over Watergate, Vietnam and Iran, those principles seemed as illusory as the idea of moving inanimate objects with your mind. Yet the three original Star Wars films maintained a seemingly irrational faith in the power of human transcendence, in the face of fear and despair. Because they matched perfectly the mood of the times, they were successful far beyond their literary merit.

It has been a long, long forty years. There have been glimmers of hope, with Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. But both men ultimately disappointed. Carter is a good man, but he proved weak and ineffectual as president. Clinton allowed the country to founder for three years because he couldn’t keep his pants on. And so the Force never reappeared.

Is Obama our Yoda? He has yet to prove himself, but he has the requisite faith and moral clarity. He has the brains and character to know what is wise and right. He has shown unshakable belief that what is wise and right will also make us strong.

Just as in Yoda, Obama’s wisdom and moral strength appear in an unexpected package. A generation raised on Star Wars is eager for his leadership. For as George Lucas might have said, in Obama the Force is strong.

So I approach the Democratic primaries with more enthusiasm that I have felt since voting for Gene McCarthy in 1968. It is a wonderful feeling to support a candidate because I believe in him, not because his opponent is worse.

Many older Americans, numb since that terrible Time of Assassinations, no doubt feel the same way. If we can only communicate our enthusiasm to others, we might carry Obama to victory and take our country back from the Dark Side.

* * *

P.S. After I wrote the foregoing, Ted Sorensen appeared on Charlie Rose and endorsed Obama. He was Jack Kennedy’s friend, aide and confidant and, as author, a chief chronicler of the Kennedy Camelot.

Sorensen praised Obama’s keen judgment, noting that Obama had predicted precisely the current consequences of our misadventure in Iraq before the war began. Apparently Sorensen, too, sees Obama as heir to the bright legacy from before the Time of Assassinations.

With Zbigniew Brzezinski also having endorsed Obama, the people who matter in the Democratic Party—the ones with brains and judgment, not just money—are beginning to line up. We really don’t have to settle for second best.

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