31 October 2007

Sen. Clinton Clarifies.

After last night's climax of the Democratic debate, when Senator Clinton was caught in confusion by the Spitzer license policy question, her campaign flunkies issued a statement intended to clarify her position on the question. As reported by the New York Times, it clarifies things only insofar as she supports Gov. Spitzer doing what he has to do, but it still leaves vague whether she thinks the specific practice of granting licenses to the undocumented is a good thing in itself. Follow the links on the NYT page for more details, including Spitzer's "ironic" comments on the Senator's remarks.

To an extent, it's unfair for her Democratic rivals and Republican critics to accuse her of flip-flopping or of simulatenously supporting and opposing the Spitzer plan. She may have been caught flat-footed by the question, but her original answer was pretty carefully phrased. She "understood" why Spitzer was doing it, which isn't the same thing as affirming aliens' right to a driver's license. She backtracked after Senator Dodd condemned the plan to clarify that she had not explicitly endorsed the principle of the Spitzer plan. By comparison, Senator Obama was forthright in supporting the principle, while Edwards was merely opportunistic in crying flip-flop.

In any event, it wasn't a good night for Clinton, because the public wants a right-or-wrong answer on the license question. Excusing Spitzer on the ground of necessity while blaming the feds for the problem seems to put the Senator in line with the Governor's "illegal immigration is none of my business" position. His stance hardly seems justified, but hers is even less so, if I understand it correctly. Clinton is a United States Senator and a candidate for President of the United States. It is definitely her business to take a stand for or against states giving aid and comfort to those whom the American people, as polled repeatedly, for good or ill, want to keep out of the country. As a result, she should expect more questioning on the matter, especially if and after she's nominated.

For the record, this is what she said.

Don't We Have Contractors for This?

The BBC reports that U.S. diplomats are in danger of being effectively conscripted to serve in Iraq. Apparently, they can only get out of it if they can prove medical or personal hardship, and lacking that, they might lose their jobs if they refuse to go. Sounds like another vote of confidence in our mission, but I bet some entrepreneur's ears pricked up at this news. If you're going to privatize everything, why not diplomacy? You're not going to want Blackwater for this kind of work ... but then again, given the Bushite idea of diplomacy, those guys might have ideal qualifications. I could see them being sent to Iran as an *ahem* negotiating team within the next year or so, and from there to North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, wherever the demand exists.

Another option, of course, would be undocumented immigrants. Here, apparently, are jobs that Americans (at least a few hundred) are unwilling to do. Here, also, is a line of work that some describe as a death sentence. Even Lou Dobbs could not object to giving people with at least some international expertise an opportunity to serve their adopted country, especially as long as they do so far away. Better yet, if things really fall apart, they can be depended on to escape across the border without expensive military assistance. It seems to me that everybody benefits, except perhaps for the Iraqis, but when have their interests counted for anything?

29 October 2007

Spitzer Defiantly Refuses to Get It.

Here's the latest from Gov. Spitzer on the immigrant license question from the AP state correspondent:

"There is enormous support from those who understand these are the objectives and these have been the objectives," Spitzer told The Associated Press. "There is also opposition from fringe [sic] on the other side who simply don't want to give the immigrant community any rights."

I don't know what's more pathetic: Spitzer's intellectual dishonesty in conflating the "immigrant community" with undocumented, illegal immigrants, or his bizarre attempt to invoke the authority of Secretary Chertoff of Homeland Security in support of his plan. This is the state of New York, after all; whom did he expect to impress with that bit of name dropping?

This article clarifies some details about the three-tier license system. Most importantly, the basic license for which the undocumented will be eligible will apparently include a disclaimer warning that it does not prove legal residency in the country. This sounds like a half-measure at best, but realistically speaking, who would want a license that affirmed that the bearer is an illegal immigrant? I suppose this is a way for Spitzer to show that he's really only interested in giving the undocumented the opportunity to learn how to drive properly, since the basic license is theoretically no gateway to other privileges. But he's still given opponents of his plan no reason to abandon their belief that trespassers in this country shouldn't have the right to drive. Instead, he falls back on name-calling and blanket accusations that border (no pun intended) on slander. He still has a long way to go before this issue is past him.

28 October 2007

Spitzer Still Doesn't Get It.

Today's Albany Times Union announces that Gov. Eliot Spitzer has decided to compromise on his policy to require motor vehicles departments to issue drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. He appears to have taken up a suggestion from several quarters to create a class system of licenses. However, he hasn't accepted the specific suggestion that licenses for undocumented drivers identify them as such. Instead, he proposes a basic category of driver's license for which illegals would be eligible, and two higher license classes, one of which would enable bearers to drive into Canada or Mexico without passports, the other to conform to federal "Real ID" requirements and entitle bearers to board commercial buildings or enter federal buildings without passports.

The new proposal has already gotten a mixed response. Advocates of unconditional immigration have called it a sell-out, while local Republicans predictably call it a meaningless gesture. Unfortunately, they come closer to the truth. Spitzer may think that he's answered a major objection by providing that not all licenses will be equal, but his constituents won't appreciate that they'll have to pay extra money for an "Enhanced" license. Requiring the undocumented to pay a higher fee just to get their basic license might balance things out, but to my knowledge that hasn't been proposed. In any event, Spitzer has refused to concede the major point in dispute. Most if not all opponents of his original proposal believe that illegal immigrants don't have the right to drive cars in New York State. They remain unimpressed by the excuse that nothing can be done about the multitude of illegals here, though on the other hand I haven't exactly seen a surge of volunteers for the work of rounding up and deporting them. Their main point remains a valid one, and Spitzer has done nothing to help his case by ducking the issue and saying that illegal immigration is a federal, not a state problem.

The governor has still neglected to go before the people and explain his own position on the question of illegal immigration or explain why New Yorker should not complain about it. Can he possibly believe the party-line rhetoric that dismisses all criticism as fearmongering? Even if that's the case, he still needs to try to explain why people shouldn't be afraid. He might not persuade anybody, but it would at least look like he respected people enough to make the effort.


Christopher Hitchens has probably done more than any intellectual to popularize the term "Islamofascisim," but as he explains in an article posted on the History News Network, he didn't invent the label. The article is his latest attempt to justify his usage in the face of liberal criticism, and it isn't an impressive performance. He really has hardly more justification for throwing the word around than his antagonists who would call the Bushies or neocons fascist. His arguments are basically the same as theirs: the jihadists are fascistic because they're violent and illiberal. By that standard, we could go back in time and apply the fascist label retroactively to any vicious regime -- Genghis Khan as "proto-fascist," for instance.

Hitchens himself realizes that fascism has something to do with a theory of the state, so he offers some tentative comments along that line toward the end. This results to little more than assuming that bin Laden's dreamed of Caliphate must necessarily be fascist in nature. Since bin Laden appears to want a revival of the Caliphate of golden-age Islam, Hitchens would have to list the Ummayyids, Abbassids, Ottomans, et al as proto-fascists. He'd be better off not bothering. Enemy of religion that he is, you'd think he'd be happy using the "theocrat" label. That might signify ultimate evil for him, but the real reason anyone uses the word "Islamofascist" is that they want to recruit liberals into their war. It's a way of telling liberals that the Islamists are their enemies, not just the enemies of neocons, imperialists, or Zionists. Since most liberals won't deny the inherent enmity between them and theocrats of any kind, the further reason to talk about "Islamofascism" is to argue that Islamism is a problem unto itself that must be crushed without reference to context or larger geopolitical concerns.

People who object to the war on terror as currently waged generally do so because they think their leaders are doing nothing to prevent a recurrence of terrorism, i.e., nothing to change the conditions that inflame Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere. The dissidents suspect that to do nothing along this line is to endorse all the policies that have provoked the terrorist response. Hitchens himself has never endorsed those policies uncritically, being no friend of Zionism, for instance. But his hatred of religion makes him believe that nothing is more important than crushing the jihad as soon as possible if not by any means necessary. But if he thinks the terrorist impulse can be snuffed out simply by slaughtering Muslims, he has his work cut out for him, and I don't like his chances.

26 October 2007

They Can't Help Themselves

Just when you might want to give the government (or at least the government of California) some credit for its smooth evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people from the path of the wildfires, you see a story like this. It tells us a lot about the Bush administration and how deep down the rot goes. I don't doubt that Sec. Chertoff and the other officials quoted are furious about this ridiculous incident, but they're in denial if they don't realize that their underlings were acting on instinct. Common sense would tell you to cancel or delay a press conference if reporters haven't shown up, but the most important thing for these people is to get their message out. So even on an occasion when actions might well have spoken for themselves, they had to perpetrate a sham in order to put their spin on events. "Pathetic" is the only word for it, but in fairness, I'm not sure it would have played out any differently in a Democratic administration. Yes, there are meaningful differences between the two factions, but they're all still two of a kind, and the rules of the game are the same for both of them.

25 October 2007

People who live in glass houses ...

The U.S. government is unhappy that the Russians are proposing limits on the activities of election observers in the countries covered by the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. Given how Americans think about Vladimir Putin, there's an inevitable assumption that he wants to get observers out of the way so that he and his client-state cronies can cheat their way to victory in future elections. That may well be so. I rather like the idea of an international body that monitors elections and makes judgments on their fairness. There probably ought to be a global group on the OSCE's model. But before Americans pounce on Putin and presume the worst about his proposal, they ought to wonder how welcoming their own government would be toward a similar body that appointed itself to keep an eye on those districts in those states where voter intimidation or vote suppression is alleged. Anyone who says that foreigners would have no business sticking their noses in America's business has no business trying to browbeat other sovereign countries on this question.

24 October 2007

A Bad Dream

In a vote that broke party lines, the U.S. Senate refused to consider the so-called "Dream" bill. As explained here, this legislation would facilitate the naturalization process for the children of illegal immigrants. Sen. Durbin, the bill's sponsor, believes that the sins of the parents should not be visited upon their children. Since the children did not cross the border of their own will, Durbin believes they should be given a break. There's a certain moral sense to what he says, but the Senator simply overlooks or disregards the fact that his bill would create a new incentive for illegal immigration.

The divisions within both parties on this question should serve as a warning for 2008. The immigration issue is volatile and can blow up in anyone's face, as Gov. Spitzer is learning in New York. Americans have an intellectual right to believe that this country should welcome anyone who wants to come in, but they also have an ethical obligation to respect the will of their fellow citizens, should it come to legislation or referenda, as the final word on the matter. Everyone should welcome debate, but the advocates of amnesty or similar schemes will have to do better than accusing their antagonists of bigotry or whining that nothing can be done about all the undocumented who are already here. The friends of unconditional immigration should not presume that anyone who disagrees is just a cranky Republican, because plenty who aren't may end up voting that way.

23 October 2007

Rep. Stark's Self-Criticism

For those of you unversed in Cold War lingo, a self-criticism is something the Commies did, particularly the Chi-Coms. When someone got on the wrong side of Chairman Mao, he made them publicly confess their errors and admit to bourgeois or capitalist-road tendencies. It tied in to the idea of re-education camps where you got over your heresies through menial labor.
Rep. Stark of California isn't about to be sent to a collective farm, but that aside, the ordeal he underwent today doesn't seem much different from something someone might suffer during the Cultural Revolution. You can read the article, but let's put Stark's offending comment on the record here. This is what he said that got him into trouble:

"You don't have money to fund the war or children. But you're going to
spend it, to blow up innocent people if we can get enough kids to grow old
enough for you to send to Iraq, to get their heads blown off, for the
president's amusement."

Aren't Republicans the most thin-skinned people on Planet Earth? They can't stand the thought of their leader's good name getting besmirched. They seem to take it personally that anyone might suggest that George W. Bush has a character defect. But aren't they hypocrites, too? The ad hominem argument is their favorite debating tool. Their first reflex is to ascribe opposition to Republican or conservative policies to character flaws. Yet they instantly demand apologies, recanting, self-criticism if anyone questions their character or that of their president.

But leave Republican hypocrisy aside. The main points for tonight are that Rep. Stark has nothing to apologize for and that the House of Representatives has disgraced itself by even debating a resolution to rebuke him for what he said. The enduring fact is that George W. Bush has earned the hatred of the American people, and that any rhetoric short of advocating his murder is more than justified by his decisions and policies. Democrats must share the disgrace with Republicans to the extent that any of them, from Nancy Pelosi on down, said anything, any single word critical of Rep. Stark. At this late date, if you hear a Republican whine and pout and bluster and demand apologies from someone for insulting Bush, the only appropriate response is the one that Mr. Cheney taught us.

Having said all this, I hasten to add that I dispute the accuracy of Rep. Stark's remarks. I don't think that Bush literally chortles over casualty reports. I suspect that he keeps the troops in Iraq not so much for his amusement, nor even mainly for strategic reasons, but to test his own will against that of "the terrorists." Part of the neocon mythos is that terrorists are emboldened when, once bloodied, Americans cut and run. My hunch is that Bush believes he can break the terrorists' will by refusing to cut and run, by showing them that, no matter how many other Americans they kill, he will not withdraw. You may decide that this is worse than keeping soldiers there to die for his amusement, but don't expect me to apologize.

21 October 2007

The American Bipolarchy: Recommended Reading

Pursuing my inquiry into the consolidation of the modern two-party system back in time, I've found an informative and entertaining volume to recommend. Mark Wahlgren Summers's Party Games is one of a series the author has written about politics during the American "Gilded Age," which lasted roughly from the end of the Civil War into the 1880s. This book, written in 2004, details the strategies, tactics and dirty tricks the Democrats and Republicans employed to thwart one another and block the advent of third parties.

Summers makes it clear that the Democratic party clung to life after the Civil War mostly on the strength of terrorism. Successful efforts by any means necessary to prevent blacks and other Republican sympathizers from voting gave the Democracy a power base that made it an irrepressible national force. In response, Republicans across the country decided that all tactics short of violence were acceptable. Both sides cheated in a blatant fashion that makes modern-day schemers look like dilettantes. Bribery of voters, ballot stuffing and outright ballot theft were all taken for granted. Partisan legislative majorities constantly redrew maps of voting districts to maximize their own advantage and imprison opponents in as few districts as possible.

Complaints were common but nothing seemed to be done about the situation. In part, that was because the two parties had already mastered the art of co-opting or neutralizing dissidents. On one hand, you could already hear the familiar litany that voting for a third party was actually a vote for the intolerable first or second party. On the other, the parties had learned to be flexible and accommodating, giving in just enough on third-party issues to keep wavering voters loyal in the end. At the same time, at least in the era Summers writes about, the two parties maintained consistent and distinctive positions on issues that really mattered to voters, particularly regarding trade. Republicans were always protectionist, while Democrats stood for free trade.

Money had already become decisive for politics in the era Summers describes. It cost money to stage rallies with uniformed marchers, to print pamphlets and the party ballots that were necessary before the introduction of voting machines, and to bribe "floaters," the people who remained self-consciously undecided until Election Day. Most newspapers were party organs that depended on local government patronage and shut out news about third parties, except when it hurt the other major party.

The remarkable thing about Party Games is Summers's ability to tell an appalling story with style and wit. A reader might well wonder whether he just finds details funny, but it's clear that he has a serious point to make. For all the chicanery he describes, I also got the impression that both major parties still stood for their founding principles in this era. The American Bipolarchy as we know it won't have taken its present form until the parties had mastered the ability to adopt any position, even one polarly opposed to their original principles, and still survive.

I would have liked more detail on the inner workings of national party bureaucracies apart from dirty tricks, because that's where we'd probably see what the Republicans and Democrats had that the Whigs didn't. We also need to see what's going on at that level to determine whether the parties retained an institutional self-consciousness and survival instinct over time or if, as some apologists for the Bipolarchy might like to argue, they became empty vessels to be animated by whatever grass-roots mass movements got control of them. Summers doesn't see mass movements getting control of the two parties in his era of study, so we'll have to keep our eyes open when this seems to happen later, whether in 1896, 1932, 1972 or who knows when.

Overall, Party Games is a book you can recommend to any literate person who might appreciate the fact that, little more than a century ago, a lot went on that made the United States look a lot like the Third World countries whose practices we deplore today. Since Americans today tend to claim that adopting American-style democracy would eliminate these ills, Party Games should serve as a cautionary tale.

19 October 2007

We're Number 48!

Reporters sans frontieres, an international organization dedicated to freedom of the press, has published its latest rankings of countries, and I'm shocked to discover that the United States, home of the First Amendment, ranks 48th out of 168 countries. Nor am I reassured to learn that 48th place is actually an improvement from last year.

This is all the group has to say about the U.S. this year:

There were slightly fewer press freedom violations in the United States (48th) and blogger Josh Wolf was freed after 224 days in prison. But the detention of Al-Jazeera’s Sudanese cameraman, Sami Al-Haj, since 13 June 2002 at the military base of Guantanamo and the murder of Chauncey Bailey in Oakland in August mean the United States is still unable to join the lead group.

Presumably one has to go to their backlog of reports to find the raw data that earned the U.S. its dubious ranking. As a caveat, I note that RSF factors "self-censorship" into its index. That's pretty much a non-quantifiable category and to some extent purely a matter of subjective perception. You may have firsthand confessions from editors or publishers about suppressing stories, but more likely in a lot of cases it comes down to one group thinking certain stories ought to be covered and crying "self-censorship" if they aren't.

I googled Chauncey Bailey and learned that he was a newspaper reporter whose murder is allegedly tied to stories he had written about a power struggle involving a bakery owned by Black Muslims. His example is apparently meant to show that circumstances other than government policy contribute to creating an unsafe environment for journalists. Josh Wolf was held in jail for all that time because the government wanted videos he had made of an anti-G8 protest in 2005, including footage of police brutality and intimidation. That's more what I think of when someone says press freedoms are endangered. Sami Al-Haj's story is detailed here, and while it's no credit to the U.S., I wonder whether the capture of an alleged enemy combatant on foreign soil should count against press freedom at home.

I don't raise these questions to suggest that the U.S. should get a higher rating. If it were a press diversity survey, my country would probably deserve an even lower rating. I just naturally wonder how anyone comes up with standards to judge concerns like press freedom objectively. My own subjective impression of post-911 America is that things have definitely been better in the past, and could certainly be better now.

So Do Something About It!

The Secretary of Defense admits that private security contractors operating in Iraq are undermining the larger American mission in that country. He also confesses that his forces can't operate there without the help of contractors. At this point, presumably, he shrugs his shoulders. He ought to do more than that. He answers only to the Commander-in-Chief, and the Pentagon answers to him. If the contractors do more harm than good, get rid of them. If that means you need more troops to do whatever it is the Americans are supposed to be doing in Iraq, then call up more troops, or call for volunteers, or call for a draft, or better yet, quit the damned occupation. Might the Vice President disagree? Let him. As far as I know, that office has no power over the Defense Department, and partakes of no executive authority whatsoever. Even if the President delegates responsibilities to his understudy, the Veep has no formal powers and his word to a Cabinet member can never be final. The current Vice President has long longed to privatize the military as far as possible. Now everyone sees the consequences, except perhaps for the President. So if Mr. Gates thinks there's a problem, he should go straight to the Oval Office and not take Cheney's word for an answer. I'm not saying he'd get satisfaction from Bush, but he ought at least to make the effort, and he owes it to the American people to let us know how it turns out.

17 October 2007

Sauce For the Gander

The Turkish legislature has authorized military incursions into Iraq in order to suppress Kurdish raids across the border. This requires almost no comment. The only thing that needs to be said is that any American who complains, who also supported the invasion of Iraq, is a hypocrite. If anything, the Turks have more cause to enter that particular country than the Americans ever did.

It does make you wonder, though: if the Americans are such special friends of the Kurds, why don't they force the issue and give them a nation and tells the Turks and the rest of the Iraqis and anyone else who complains to shove it? If every "nation" of people needs to have a nation-state of their own, why does the Bush administration even hesitate to create a Kurdistan? Do the Kurdish people somehow have less right to national sovereignty than the Jewish people, for instance? And if the supposed national rights of the Kurdish people can be sacrificed to geopolitical realities, but never those of the Jewish people, what does that tell us? No, this isn't about the Jews or any lobby in Washington. It's about American double standards, and it's a reminder that when American politicians tell you that this country is up to something abroad in the name of principle, you had better think at least twice about it before accepting their word without question.

16 October 2007

This is Different.

Now the Chinese are griping because the U.S. wants to give the Dalai Lama a medal. Again, Bush is trying to be diplomatic about this, insisting that the Tibetan is being honored purely as a spiritual leader. As far as the Chinese are concerned, "the Dalai" is nothing but a separatist, and any honors accorded him only endorse separatism. On this one I'm going to defend the U.S. First, we are not strategically dependent on China in the same way that we depend on Turkey, so it's simply not as great an imperative not to offend China. Second, to the extent that Tibet was a sovereign country before China swallowed it up in 1950, the Dalai Lama has every right to be a separatist, and people around the world have a right to advocate Tibetan separatism. The U.S. government doesn't have to endorse Tibetan independence explicitly in any honors granted the Lama, but if the Chinese want to infer that, it must be a guilty conscience talking. By my own standards, I'd concede that Tibet will inevitably remain within a Chinese sphere of influence until a world revolution makes such spheres obsolete, but being stuck in a sphere of influence shouldn't mean you lose your national sovereignty altogether. From what I know about Tibetan history, the Dalai Lama's predecessors were pretty much feudal overlords who oppressed the peasantry, but that no more gave the Chinese the right to intervene to modernize or reform the place than Saddam Hussein's practices entitled the U.S. to topple his government. Anyone who wants the U.S. out of Iraq should also want China out of Tibet.

14 October 2007

Against War Profiteering

Last week the House of Representatives passed a bill establishing strong penalties for "war profiteering," with only three votes in opposition. This follows a vote earlier this month to bring military contractors within U.S. jurisdiction. These are admirable measures which the Senate should duplicate. My only quibble is the "war profiteering" bill's narrow definition of the concept. According to Congress, war profiteering is the mere defrauding or ripping off of the government by contractors. My own understanding of the term would cover any business that has a vested interest in war or the expansion of the military establishment. That means Blackwater. That means Halliburton. I doubt whether Congress can make their mere existence illegal, but they could go further towards reversing the privatization of the military that Dick Cheney initiated at the end of the Cold War and accellerated in collaboration with President Clinton while Cheney headed Halliburton. By all means, regulate them while we're stuck with them, but speed the day when we're unstuck and you'll do the country a real service.

Here's an article about the two bills, with a complaint from one of the dissidents, and here are links to H.R. 400 and H.R. 2740. Regarding the latter bill, it must be noted as a caveat that Blackwater itself supports this measure.


Blackwater: Mr. Prince, the company founder, claims that pockmarks on Blackwater vehicles prove that his men were fired upon during the September incident in which, according to the Iraqi authorities, 17 people were killed. He's being careful in his assertions, not going so far as to say his evidence proves that any insurgents fired first, although he'd clearly like people to infer that. He only states that the pockmarks prove that his men weren't firing at each other. But what makes him so sure? It was apparently a chaotic scene that day. I usually don't speculate along these lines, but since I really don't trust Blackwater, I have to wonder whether Prince's evidence is legitimate. Bushies might take offense that I give the Iraqis the benefit of the doubt over an American, but Erik Prince is a war profiteer, and that fact testifies against his character as far as I'm concerned.

License to Break the Law? As far as the Governor of New York is concerned, it's none of his business if people enter the United States illegally. At the least, it should have nothing to do with whether the state issues drivers' licenses to undocumented immigrants. Mr. Spitzer condescended to address people's complaints in an interview published today in the Albany Times Union. Let's put him on the record here:

The issue of our giving a privilege to those who are not here legally,
necessarily, I don't think is the right way to view it. These are individuals
who are here in our communities, going to our public schools, going to our
hospitals, working in our economy. And we are all better off making them part of the aboveground economy rather than keeping them beneath the surface where we don't even know they exist.

In other words, they're here, they're ... whatever, get used to it, to borrow someone else's slogan. Facts on the ground count for more than the law, which is an interesting principle to apply in other cases where the criminal law looks equally clear. For a former prosecutor it's especially interesting, but as you'll see, immigration isn't his problem:

The fact that when you crossed the border you didn't have a visa, you
didn't come in properly, that is not the purpose of the driver's license. That's
the federal government's responsibility, and they have failed for decades to
enforce and do their job.

In that case, maybe what's needed is a federal law prohibiting all the states from issuing licenses to people who violate what is, after all, a federal law. It would be even more interesting to see whether the Governor would enforce such a law. He's been careful so far not to espouse any actual open-borders or "no one is illegal" doctrine. He's basically using lawyer tactics to narrow the focus of debate to his preferred public-safety-on-the-roads track, but it only looks like he has tunnel vision.

13 October 2007

In Defense of Mercenaries

The History News Network reprints an item published in the neocon organ Commentary by Max Boot, a military historian who has celebrated American adventurism throughout history and the invasion in Iraq in particular. Boot thinks mercenaries are getting a bum rap. He doesn't go out on a limb to say that Blackwater or any of its competitors is getting a bum rap. Instead, he contends that there is nothing inherently wrong or unacceptable about Americans employing mercenaries or acting as mercenaries abroad. He notes in passing this country's founding animus against "Hessians" but seems to dismiss it as mere resentment of an enemy. He offers counter-examples of American military heroes, foreigners who served this country or Americans who served abroad, who could be categorized as mercenaries. His list includes such heroes of the American Revolution as the Marquis de Lafayette, Baron von Steuben and John Paul Jones. Right at the beginning, then, something was wrong.

Boot seems satisfied that any soldier who receives pay is a mercenary. By this logic, of course, ours is an entirely mercenary army, as are all other armies wherever governments can afford them. But does it make the foreign heroes we were taught to revere in school mercenaries that they received commissions and pay? My understanding was that people like Lafayette sympathized with the American cause and volunteered their services in the sense of freely offering them, not offering them for free. In fact, this source says the Marquis did fight for free, as did von Steuben, though the Baron initially expected pay and got a pension later.

It seems to me that Boot can only call such people mercenaries if he defines a mercenary as anyone who is not drafted or otherwise compelled to serve. A more just definition would be anyone who contracts to fight on a purely business basis, or to the highest bidder. We should allow for some flexibility or personal preference, since I doubt that Mr. Prince of Blackwater would hire out to fight for Osama bin Laden, but I also doubt whether he applies an ethics test to every potential client. Purely in pragmatic terms, Boot may be right that mercenaries might be useful to U.S. interests. On principal, however, hiring mercenaries is a confession that one's own people are unwilling to fight their country's battles, which should always throw the motives behind those battles into question.

12 October 2007

Russia and the Real World

It was an unhappy encounter between Vladimir Putin and Condoleezza Rice today. The Russian president remains unreconciled with the idea of the U.S. setting up missile-defense sites in Poland or the Czech Republic, and seems determined to throw his country's weight around the world as in days of old. Here's a summary of the arguments.

My first reaction when anyone complains about anyone else building a missile-defense system is to ask, "What? Do you think you have a right to nuke another country?" In effect, however, the balance-of-terror deterrence system developed during the Cold War acknowledged such a right. Each superpower was restrained, the theory went, by the assurance that the other could and would destroy it with a retaliatory strike. Ever since Gorbachev, the Russians have seemed to see it as a form of cheating that the U.S. wants to change the rules. In geopolitical terms, I understand the complaint. An effective missile defense system (however unlikely it may seem today despite U.S. propaganda) is presumed to give a country freedom of action around the world, since it would no longer be deterred by other countries' nuclear arsenals. From this funhouse-mirror perspective (so it must look to Americans), developing a defensive system is an act of aggression.

Secretary Rice assures the Russians that the missile defense apparatus is not directed at them, but at terrorist and rogue nations. In that case, she will need to explain more effectively to the American people as well as the Russians why such a system is ideally located in one or two former members of the Warsaw Pact, rather than in closer proximity to alleged rogue states. For that matter, why is the Russian offer to have their Azeri client state host the system unacceptable to the U.S?

I'm not happy to be taking Putin's side in this matter, because he seems to be an odious character out to centralize and consolidate power in the old Russian style -- and by old I mean before the Bolshevik Revolution. Like other aspiring authoritarians, he seems to be driving dissent off of TV while thinking of himself increasingly as an indispensable man. Maybe I'm reading and hearing too much American propaganda, but the bare facts don't tell an inspiring story. That's part of the problem with this missile-defense issue. To the extent that Putin is perceived as a dictator or would-be dictator (a la Hugo Chavez), our government and our opinion leaders tend to see Russia as an enemy.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that conflict between the U.S. and Russia in Eastern Europe is ideological in nature. Putin's perceived turn toward dictatorship may influence American unwillingness to concede any sphere of influence to Russia, but the Russians are likely to demand a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe regardless of who rules them. Russia is a big country and its people have a cultural superiority complex. They think they are the natural leaders of the Slavic or Orthodox Christian world, and as a large country they think they are entitled to favorable economic relations with their neighbors.

Historically, Americans have had a hypocritically hostile attitude toward other nations' spheres of influence. Understandably, as a rising economic power, the U.S. saw these spheres of influence as shutting them out of trade opportunities. One hundred years ago, for instance, the U.S. opposed European plans to divide post-Boxer Rebellion China into spheres of influence, proposing instead an "Open Door" policy that wouldn't shut them out of a huge market. Principle and self-interest are intertwined here. The principle is that no country, no matter how big or how close, should have the right to assign another country to its sphere of influence if the people of the other country think they can do better trading with different nations. The self-interest is self-evident. The hypocrisy can be summed up in two words: "Monroe Doctrine."

My hunch is that the heart of the current conflict between the U.S. and Russia is an American refusal to concede Eastern Europe to Russia's sphere of influence. Capitalism wants markets everywhere, and ever since the rest of the world recovered from World War II, the U.S. has been losing markets. We're even losing them in our own sphere as South American countries discover they can do business with China, Iran, etc., without questions being asked about how their governments behave. The more that happens, the more the U.S. is likely to be "aggressive" about opening markets by preventing or breaking up spheres of influence. That will mean measures to prevent big powers from imposing their will within their accustomed or expected spheres of influence. A missile-defense system in Poland sounds like such a measure to me, but we need to know more about the plans before we draw conclusions. That said, there seems to be some cause for suspicion for both U.S. and Russian motives.

In general, as the superpowers compete for ever-scarcer resources, spheres of influence and trade relations will loom ever larger as potential flashpoints for war. China, India, Russia and the U.S., among others, are going to want to reserve as much of those resources to themselves as exclusively as possible. There ought to be a way out of this, but it would require everyone to be willing to share, which means learning to accept only one's proper share of resources rather than what any country thinks it deserves. How we bring that about is a topic for another time.

10 October 2007

Broken Clock Watch: Armenian Time

An old proverb notes that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Today, at least, the Bush Administration is halfway there. The President, along with representatives of the State and Defense Departments, have urged Congress to vote down H.Res 106, a bill affirming that the massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I consitute a "genocide." The bill is mainly a litany of facts about the massacres and past recognition of same, with a recommendation that U.S. policy reflect "appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning ... the consequences of the failure to realize a just resolution." The administration warns that the present Turkish government's sensitivity on this point of history might endanger the nation's strategic position in the Near East if Congress insists on provoking the Turks.

As a private citizen and student of history, I do not dispute that the Turks were guilty of mass murder. As private citizens, members of the House of Representatives have the right to speak out in memory of the Armenians and against the Turks' refusal to own up as fully as many wish they would. As a nation among nations, the United States must be senstitive to the interests and biases of other nations, no matter how repugnant they seem to us. Americans ought to have learned from the Iraq debacle, when we were incited to war in part by propaganda against a "genocidal" dictator, that we ought to be careful about imposing our moral will on the rest of the world. The Iraq invasion was as much an act of moral vanity as it was a grab for resources or a social experiment. H.Res 106 is no less a piece of moral exhibitionism, even if it gets no Americans killed, and it can only add to the damage done to our international standing.

Like it or not, the United States is in competition with other powers for resources and influence around the world. Our competitors, particularly China, do not scruple about the character of leadership in countries that have resources they need. The Chinese consider their national interests first, well before any universal principles of humane government or human rights. As much of the world is still ruled by dictators or oligarchic cliques, those rulers will prefer to deal with countries that don't ask annoying or insulting questions about affairs that are none of their business. In the Turkish case, reasonable people will weigh the strategic costs of insulting the Turks against the benefit to their consciences. Modesty is called for at this low point in American diplomatic history.

I'm going to leave it to someone else to figure out the other time that Bush was right today.

09 October 2007

Good, but Not Great

Christopher Hitchens is probably doomed to live in infamy as the most notorious fellow-traveler with the neocons during the War on Terror. This erstwhile Trotskyist fancies himself to be the new Orwell, if not a modern Voltaire. He is a true believer in the right of some entity to topple dictatorships across the globe, and he is convinced that "Islamofascism" is an evil unto itself that must be crushed without consideration of other factors that may have made the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington possible. While he hasn't backed down on his support for the invasion of Iraq, he seems to be distancing himself from the Bush administration, members of which, at least, he once regarded with awe. He clearly wants to reposition himself as not merely a partisan enemy of Islam, but as the scourge of all superstition and barbarism.

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is Hitchens's entry in the growing library of "militant atheism," alongside Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Sam Harris's The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. These books are characterized by a rejection of tolerant attitudes toward belief; their common refrain is that it is not OK for people to believe in anything they like. They cover much of the same territory in their common effort to disprove the familiar arguments for faith in God. Even for the intellectually sympathetic reader, there's a certain monotony that sets in after reading several of these tomes. While Hitchens is often a brilliant stylist, his volume doesn't really relieve the monotony.

The Hitchens book is often overwrought, starting with the title. It's simply not true that religion poisons "everything." It doesn't even poison everything it touches, which is perhaps what Hitchens meant in abbreviated form. Worse, the further you go in the book, the more you suspect that it isn't even religion that's poisoning everything in the cases he diagnoses. After he establishes that faith in the monotheist God isn't the sole problem, and after he acknowledges the crimes of ostensibly secular regimes like the USSR and Nazi Germany (without conceding that they can be labelled atheist nations), it becomes more apparent that some factor like "culture" or "ideology" is the real problem. The author himself admits that the contemplative spiritualist isn't usually a menace to his neighbors, so the problem must be with the impulse to impose conformity on those neighbors, and there is nothing specifically religious about that impulse unless you choose to identify it as religious, which is what some authors do when they attribute, say, Stalin's purges to "dogmatism" rather than atheism. That approach turns atheism into the equivalent of capitalism in the Libertarian imagination: if you see an avowed atheist murdering masses, the argument goes, he's not really an atheist. I don't buy this, but I don't buy either the believers' counter-argument that atheism was a primary motive or authorization for Bolshevik terror.

While the book as a whole is rather a hodgepodge with little sense of an organizing principle, there are plenty of passages that are thrilling to read. Hitchens is probably the best stylist of the "militant atheists," and he's especially good at challenging the contention of liberal Christians that faith was necessary to motivate good works like the civil rights movement. As a sample, here's Hitchens on Martin Luther King, from page 176:

At no point did Dr. King -- who was once photographed in a bookstore waiting calmly for a physician while the knife of a maniac was sticking straight out of his chest --even hint that those who injured and reviled him were to be threatened with any revenge or punishment, in this world or the next, save the consequences of their own brute selfishness and stupidity. And he even phrased that appeal more courteously than, in my humble opinion, its targets deserved. In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then,was he a Christian

Any reader will get the point, but not all will think to ask whether Dr. King himself would accept this description. I don't know as much about King as I should, but I suspect he would be among those who believed that there had to be eternal values, independent of human conception or imagination, for peace and justice to be possible, and that those values could only come from a Creator and final Judge of the universe. Hitchens makes no real effort to refute this idea, which means he's not going to make much progress among religious progressives, much less the more conservative believers.

This points to a general weakness among the "militant atheists." They'd like people to abandon unthinking faith in primitive revelations, and they understand that people cling to faith to answer important questions about the meaning of life and death and so forth, but instead of actually attempting to answer those questions themselves, they're content with telling other people that their answers are stupid. The sole exception to this is Sam Harris's recommendation of scientifically-verifiable (?) Eastern meditative practices as a path to personal peace, but Hitchens, noting Buddhist atrocities through history, might argue that even that approach might poison everything. In every case, these books seem like preaching to the atheist choir, even when Harris is purportedly addressing Christians. I would be greatly surprised if any of these books converted anyone over college age.

Let me make clear that I think it an admirable goal to wean makind away from faith in ventriloquist Gods and their dummy prophets, but this is one area in which the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas is justified. We're not going to sell atheism to anyone simply by shouting over and over that Brand X (pun intended) is junk. We've got to offer them a better product. In other words, we need to teach people that they will die, and that death will be the end of everything for them, but that they can still die happy and content. If you don't believe that's possible, then we might as well give up.

Not Ready For Prime Time

As I write, I'm listening to the MSNBC rerun of the latest Republican debate. It ran live at 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time, which for all I know might be when political junkies are most likely to be watching cable news. Nevertheless, it seems almost as if they had something to hide, or as if they were hoping most people would watch the rerun after the pundits had a chance to mold people's expectations. Maybe it was a kindness to Fred Thompson, who was making his competitive debut as a presidential candidate today.

In any event, the debate was meant to focus mostly on economic issues, which boiled down to Giuliani and Romney arguing over who cut taxes more in their former jobs. Somehow, someone remembered to ask Ron Paul about Iraq, which makes me think the news channels know that people are tuning in to see Paul rip into the war. He didn't disappoint here, adding to his repertoire warnings against invading Iran. He condemns the notion of preventative war, rightly calling it unconstitutional, but most of his rivals appeared to think that the Commander in Chief has gotta do what he's gotta do.

Before I go overboard about Ron Paul, let me remind everyone that he is a Libertarian who wants to bring back the gold standard. Worse, he appears to be a Christian Right Libertarian, which you would have thought was an oxymoron. For all that, he's probably the best the Republicans have, indisputably so on foreign affairs, but that just serves as a strong argument against voting Republican next year.

07 October 2007

Immigration: What is "progressive?"

Over on DailyKos I posted a diary criticizing Gov. Eliot Spitzer's policy facilitating the issuance of drivers' licenses to undocumented immigrants. I argued that uncritical support for such policies and an unwillingness to take objections seriously exposed a liberal blind spot that might cost a non-Republican presidential candidate crucial votes for the 2008 election. Predictably, my viewpoint was challenged. One respondent in particular emphasized that supporting the undocumented was the "progressive" thing to do.

"Progressive" is one of those slippery words like "liberal." Its meaning changes over time, since it is really a label rather than a substantive term. Just the same, it's worth noting that, approximately 100 years ago, unconditional support for undocumented immigrants would not have been considered a "progressive" policy. At least it wouldn't have been considered Progressive with a capital P.

100 years ago, we were in what historians usually label the "Progressive Era." This label covers the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-9), William Howard Taft (1909-13) and Woodrow Wilson (1913-21), although only Roosevelt, seeking a return to power in 1912, declared himself a Progressive. Like Taft, Roosevelt was a Republican as President, while Wilson was a Democrat. "Progressivism" crossed party lines and usually describes a greater willingness to claim regulatory powers over business for the government. On the social-cultural level, it involved an attempt to more closely regulate people's private lives. This included more aggressive attempts to assimilate or Americanize immigrants, an imperative that Roosevelt emphasized forcefully.

The 1920s are considered the tail end of the Progressive Era. During those last years, the U.S. government took dramatic steps to limit the number of people who could enter the country, and established preferences for countries of origin. A quick survey of history resources on the Internet showed that historians credit these laws to the Progressive Era generally, even though the Progressive Party (which flourished only fitfully, racking up electoral votes in 1912 and 1924) had little, presumably, to do with the legislation. We can assume fairly safely, then, that as recently as 80 or 90 years ago, the "progressive" policy was restriction and assimilation.

We shouldn't take this point too far, however. As political conditions evolve, the concept of "progressive" policies will evolve as well. Common sense tells us that the Progressive position of 1912, for instance, wouldn't necessarily be "progressive" in 2008. On the other hand, we might wonder whether there's even an evolutionary continuity of any sort linking the policies of 1912 or 1924 to policies advocated as "progressive" today. The impression I get from reading DailyKos is that it's "progressive" to be compassionate toward the undocumented. That begs all manner of questions about the direction in which the nation is desired to progress. Merely to be "progressive" tells us nothing about the direction of proposed progress. Rather, to label oneself "progressive" is to insinuate that there is only one reasonable direction of progress, so obvious that that you don't have to describe it apart from saying that you want progress. This is all a labored way of suggesting that when someone tells you that they're a "progressive," capital P or not, that they've told you nothing, and that when they say that "amnesty" for the undocumented or unrestricted immigration is progressive, you shouldn't be impressed.

05 October 2007

Ahmadinejad's Mythology

For many Muslims, today was Qods Day, an occasion to express solidarity with Palestine and curse Israel -- as if they needed a special day to do the latter. Naturally, it was also an occasion for President Ahmadinejad of Iran to make a speech. This time around he made his position on the Holocaust a bit more clear than before -- at least as reported by Agence France-Presse.

Here's the crucial passage:

"The Iranian nation hates killing and considers Hitler and the executioners of the World War II as black and dark figures," he said.
"But the Iranian nation has a question and as long as there is no clear and reasonable response to this question, it will remain.
"They have made the Holocaust sacred and do not allow anyone to ask questions. Under the pretext of the Holocaust they are allowed to commit whatever crime they like," he added.

I take the first sentence as Ahmadinejad's acknowledgement that the event generally known as the Holocaust actually took place. Now jump to the end. This is what he means when he talks about a "myth" of the Holocaust; the idea that the event entitles Zionists to commit what the Iranian characterizes as "whatever crime they like." In other words, the "myth" is that the Holocaust is the justification for the existence of Israel.

As an aggrieved Muslim, Ahmadinejad should know that Zionists were settling Palestine long before Hitler took power in Germany. If he meant to suggest that Zionism only got going because of the Holocaust, he's just being silly. If he means to suggest that Zionism has gained international legitimacy because of the Holocaust, he's closer to the right track. His problem, of course, is that he thinks that by refuting the "myth" of the Holocaust, Israel will lose all legitimacy. Worse, he thinks that Jewish people will just pack their bags and head for some new homeland generously provided by the West. He suggests Canada or Alaska -- has he read Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union? Once we reach this point in the president's oration, we have to reiterate that he's a nut. Yes, I acknowledge that maybe the Arabs or Islam in general were treated unfairly when part of their patrimony was reserved for Jewish people, but there are millions of facts on the ground, and the idea that you can get rid of them without what some would call a Second Holocaust is, well, a myth.

04 October 2007

License to Break the Law

A constitutional crisis of some kind may be coming soon to New York State as the great majority of county clerks have voted to defy Governor Spitzer's order to issue drivers' licenses to undocumented immigrants who present valid passports from their home countries. The clerks believe that the new policy rewards illegal aliens and might facilitate terrorist infiltration. The governor insists that the policy is necessary to ensure safe roads, since otherwise, he asserts, the aliens will drive without licenses or car insurance. He addresses concerns about homeland security by noting that applicants will be put on a database that will prove handy to law enforcement. Here's a summary of the current situation from one of my local TV stations.

I've seen the press release Spitzer issued after the clerks took action. The stunning thing about the document is the governor's complete refusal to address the issue of illegal immigration. As far as he's concerned, this is all about auto safety and his version of homeland security. Sadly, some Republicans went overboard about the possibility of terrorists' exploiting the new policy, and that gave Spitzer an opening to keep the issue on that topic. On the question of whether undocumented applicants are criminals, this erstwhile super-prosecution apparently could not care less. I can't help but read this as an expression of contempt for his constituents. For them, the real issue is whether illegals should be "rewarded" with licenses to drive on New York roads. Perhaps Mr. Spitzer considers that a primitive, provincial prejudice, but as long as this country and the 50 states constitute a democratic republic, it is the people's right to set rules allowing or forbidding newcomers to enter the country. If Spitzer wants to tell us that we're wrong, that we should think differently about the undocumented, let him use his bully pulpit to talk honestly on the subject. This is no longer a question of safety on the roads. It's a question of the rule of law and the rule of the people, which ought to be one and the same thing.

My latest diary at Daily Kos also addresses this subject. It ought to be interesting to see how committed liberal Democrats respond.

03 October 2007

One Less Executive Privilege?

In an overwhelming bipartisan vote, the House of Representatives has voted to give Inspectors General more secure tenure in office. As MSNBC reports, the President has threatened to veto this bill, but unless he has 41 supporters in the Senate, he is likely to get trampled if he stands in the way of this legislation.

What alarmed me while reading the story was that all the House seemed to be asking for was the standard protections that civil service employees usually expect. That is, they won't be removed from office without proper cause being shown if the bill becomes a law. The President, apparently, would prefer that Inspectors General serve solely at his pleasure, subject to removal whenever he pleases. That's his power under the original 1978 law, which states: "An Inspector General may be removed from office by the President. The President shall communicate the reasons for any such removal to both Houses of Congress." It's odd that the old law says sets so few conditions (none, in fact) for removal, given the criteria it establishes for appointment. An Inspector General must be chosen "without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability in accounting, auditing, financial analysis, law, management analysis, public administration, or investigations."

Congress is taking action against the President because his lackeys aren't abiding by the terms of the 1978 law. That document dictates: "Each Inspector General shall report to and be under the general supervision of the head of the establishment involved or, to the extent such authority is delegated, the officer next in rank below such head, but shall not report to, or be subject to supervision by, any other officer of such establishment. Neither the head of the establishment nor the officer next in rank below such head shall prevent or prohibit the Inspector General from initiating, carrying out, or completing any audit or investigation, or from issuing any subpoena during the course of any audit or investigation."
But as the MSNBC story notes, there have been numerous recent cases in which "heads of the establishment" are interfering with Inspector General investigations. The object of the current bill seems to be to give the IGs more leverage by stripping their superiors of the ability to deter investigations through the threat of a summary sacking by the President. The President's mouthpieces will doubtless say that the whole IG program is an executive branch effort at self-regulation and that the bill's grant of budgetary powers to Congress violates the separation of powers. Too bad for them: part of the separation and balance of powers should include empowering the different branches to act as watchdogs over one another. There seems to be proof enough that this Administration, at least, can't be trusted to be its own watchdog, or can't be trusted to treat its watchdogs better than a beaten pit bull at the Vick kennel.

Here's the 1978 law itself for those who want to research it further.

02 October 2007

A Friend of Blackwater.

I'm just going to point you to my diary entry for today on DailyKos. It's my response to an obnoxious column that ran today in one of my local papers. It's content in praise of Blackwater is bad enough, but when I delved further into Douglas MacKinnon's scarily speculative fiction, it made his column even more disturbing. People should also read the October 1 memorandum from Rep. Waxman's committee. Someone really needs to put an end to Dick Cheney's long-term project of privatizing as many aspects of the military as possible. This dates back to his Secretary of Defense days under Bush I, when in other respects he was still relatively sane, and accelerated as Halliburton cut deals with Bill Clinton and surged after September 11. Blackwater is probably only the tip of the BlackIceburg, and the Ship of State is going full steam ahead into the night.

01 October 2007

Dumb and Dumber Republicans

So as Senator McCain supposedly backpedals from his "Christian nation" comments on BeliefNet, ex-Senator Thompson puts his foot into it. This site sums it up pretty well while offering a running commentary from all sides, and the History News Network tries to put the controversy in a more learned context. Some people think it's enough to say that since a majority of Americans were Christian at the time of the Founding that the country was Founded on a Christian basis. Leaving aside the absence of God from the Constitution, it boils down to what you mean by "Christian." Some people equate Christendom with Western Civilization and would credit all the accomplishments of the latter to the former. Others include the Deist Founders among the Christian majority even though Deism is essentially un-Christian in denying the divinity of Jesus in particular and the miraculous in general. That's an important distinction, because to the extent that many Founders invoked God or Providence, they meant something they inferred from history and nature rather than something taken from scripture on faith. By comparison, when today's fundamentalists and theocons talk of a Christian nation, they mean a country that would take the Bible as an infallible guide, on faith. The Founders (or, let's face it, the ones who counted) would regard such assertions with amused contempt.