Saturday, August 28, 2004

Put on your tin hats, fellas.

Laura Rozen at War and Piece has this breaking coverage of the alleged Pentagon consultant/Israeli spy story. There is a lot of grumbling online that this is related to the niger uranium forged documents, which also might be connected with the Plame investigation. And all signs point to the Office of Special Plans at the Pentagon. This is certainly one to watch over the next week (I wonder if it will detract from the convention).

Friday, August 27, 2004

Campaigns and Money

In view of the Swift Boats Vets and 527 group controversies there is clearly an immediate need to reopen discussions about campaign finance and reform. It was, after all, the McCain-Feingold bill that has created the current environment for political advertising. President Bush has started to make some noise about filing a suit against the FEC and supporting further legislation, both in the interest of regulating the 527 groups. This seems a laudable objective, although the details aren't yet clear, and Bush's lofty rhetoric often belies less than lofty actions. There are a couple of noteworthy columns I've read recently on this issue. The first is a Washington Post column by R.J. Samuelson asserting that in general, campaign reform laws are a First Amendment breach, and that in particular, the current regulations are broken and silly in addition to restricting free speech. The second is a column in the Christian Science Monitor by reformer Derek Cressman arguing that there is a difference between free speech and paid speech. Of the two, I come down more nearly on the side of Cressman.

I think it is important on this issue to fall back to fundamentals and intents. Primarily, what is the purpose of free speech and why is it so prominently enshrined in our government's structure? There is the potential for a sticky conflict between those who hold rights such as free speech to be moral imperatives and pragmatists who see it as a critical element of a functional deliberative democracy. For the latter group, of whom I would count myself one, the issues are more straightforward. For the former it's complicated, but my intuition is that you end up in the same place eventually.

It seems clear to me that any meaningful right to free speech has to extend beyond the simple definition of being able to make noise without restriction. If we put five people in a small room to discuss an issue, but one of them has a bullhorn and shouts into it incessantly, the free speech of the others is not being restricted, but nor is it doing them any good. If free speech is intended to produce healthy discourse and deliberation, this approach to it, which as Samuelson accurately points out seems to be in keeping with the First Amendment such as it's written, fails to meet its objective.

In our campaign environment big money advertising is the bullhorn. People, candidates, and organizations with piles of money effectively can shout out those without. Interpreting free speech to mean that no regulation whatsoever should effect parties' speech does not seem to me to be accomplishing the desired effect. Further complicating the issue is the connection of the flow of this money with access and influence, creating the "appearance of corruption" remarked on by the Supreme Court in their McCain-Feingold ruling. Not only does money in politics act in a manner that negatively impacts on democratic deliberation, but it does so in the interest of giving disproportional political influence to those people who foot the bill. It's a double-whammy that I think clearly demands action from the government.

Regulation on this issue is clearly difficult and problematic. It is unlikely that we can create (and certainly questionable whether it would be desirable to create) a situation where everyone's voice is heard in exactly equal proportions. In many ways allowing people to aggregate their opinions through political parties and organizations is desirable, and clearly this implies that these parties and organizations will, or ought to, have a greater voice than individuals. This does not seem necessarily undemocratic or against the ideals of free speech. The current situation, however, gives the power of influence to these parties and organizations not in proportion to the number of people who support them, but rather by how much money those people have to contribute. That is problematic. This suggests some basic guidelines (ie that people ought to be more important than money), but still leaves the issue difficult to formulate. In some regards regulations will have to be somewhat arbitrary, and no doubt will give rise to certain situations that strike people as odd, as Samuelson protests in his column. I think it should be noted that these things will happen, but that they don't invalidate the importance of the cause nor indicate that we shouldn't make our best effort to address the problem.

Before closing, I want to raise one other angle from which this issue should be considered. That is marketing, TV marketing in particular. Marketing has developed into a science, a soft science to be sure, but it is a huge industry with reams of research data, including no small amount of psychological and behavioral study. The entire point of the exercise is to translate money into actions taken by people who would not have otherwise taken those actions. And they are very good at it. Good enough that the US annual ad revenue is in the neighborhood of $200 billion. Furthermore, while I haven't the time nor data on hand to make this case, I am willing to assert that much of their success comes not from logically reasoning with their audience, but through manipulation of emotional responses. This does not represent, to me, a good means through which to hold democratic deliberations. Inasmuch as campaign regulation is regulating television advertising, I think the bar ought to be lowered as to what is allowed in terms of regulating speech.

In essence, not all speech is equal in terms of its value in promoting discussion and a thoughful exchange of ideas and positions. Some speech, in fact, runs counter to those objectives. If this type of speech becomes the dominant form of political discourse, it stands to reason that it poses a threat to a form of government that relies upon healthy discussion, and presents a danger which must be addressed. In a conflict between a strictly literal interpretation of free speech and democratic principles, I find myself on the democratic side. It stands to reason that if democracy collapses, free speech will follow not far behind, and in fighting for the purist free speech position, you stand to lose both speech and democracy. It has already been demonstrated that free speech can be regulated for the purposes of public safety and the promotion of artistic and scientific interests without complete abridgement of speech rights, and I don't see why an equitable system cannot be worked out to also promote the social goal of healthy democratic discourse.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Oil Prices, Another Important Issue Trivialized

David Ignatius has a good column in the Washington Post about rapidly increasing prices of oil. He discusses the fact that most experts expect the prices rises to continue to increase and don't anticipate them dropping anytime soon. He goes on to discuss how silly the handling of the issues has been by the Kerry and Bush campaigns. He concludes with a paragraph strikingly similar to things I and RJ Samuelson have written previously:

"The non-debate over energy illustrates what's depressing about this campaign. The country is in serious trouble -- with record-high oil prices and the threat of a new energy crisis just one example of our global problems. But rather than the serious debate the country needs, we're hearing platitudes. George Bush and John Kerry evidently would rather play it safe and avoid politically controversial proposals, which in today's world is downright dangerous."

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Oh, the Pain

It's one thing to agree with President Bush, but it really hurts to agree with Douglas Feith, or as Gen. Tommy Franks fondly refers to him, "the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth". But, as Feith makes the argument for military redeployment in the Washington Post today, it makes a lot of sense. I think that if this plan had not come when it did (campaign season) and from who it did, the reactions to it would be a lot different.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The Troop Withdrawal

I'm going to have to come right out and say this: I agree with President Bush. Reducing our overseas troop commitments is a good idea. I've wondered for a while now why we still have so many troops in Germany and other Cold War hotspots. They're not hot anymore. Our defense spending is outlandish and much of it is still geared towards massive conventional warfare, something that is simply not as relevant now as it used to be. We need to make cuts and reductions, and this plan was as good as any I've seen.

John Kerry's objections, covered here in the Washington Post, just don't seem very objectionable. His protest on South Korea just doesn't make sense. If we decide we need to deal with North Korea militarily, we'll need far more manpower than the 30,000 troops now stationed there. And if North Korea were to stage an attack on the South, the difference between us having 20,000 or 30,000 troops is nil. In either case they would get steamrolled by the North Korean military. Their purpose there is not to be able to stop an invasion. Our troop strength there is not even close to that level. They're there to up the ante, so that if North Korea invades, a bunch of American kids will get killed, and we will be obligated to go in there and kick some ass.

Likewise I disagree with Kerry's assertion that this plan "does not strengthen our hand in the war on terror" or reduce strain on the military. How can bringing home 70,000 troops from foreign commitments not increase the flexibility of military staffing and troop rotation? It doesn't make any sense.

Our military spending it totally out of control and we need to find ways to get more for our money. That means we need to take a good hard look at where that money is going and not be afraid to make hard cuts where we can. I applaud this decision by the Bush administration.

Supporting the Iraq Invasion

Fareed Zakaria (one of my favorite middle east policy commentators) has a column in the Washington Post that provides by far the most compelling argument in favor of invading Iraq that I've seen to date. In discussing John Kerry's statement that given what we know now he would still support attacking Iraq, Zakaria makes the case that the policy of sanctions against Iraq with a large military force stationed in Saudia Arabia was untenable. The sanctions were being circumvented by Hussein and were creating massive suffering for common Iraqis, meanwhile stationing troops in Saudia Arabia was expensive and was one of the primary grievances motivating Al Qaeda. Given these circumstances the US had the choice of either walking away or forcing an endgame. It is apparent now (see Kenneth Pollack's Atlantic Monthly article for more details) that Saddam was merely biding his time waiting for the sanctions to be lifted so that he could resume his WMD programs. Walking away would not have been a great idea. So really there were not many options.

This is a very strong argument. Unfortunate that it comes almost two years too late (the pre-war hype started in September '02) and from someone completely unconnected with the Bush administration. Zakaria goes on the point out the many flaws in Bush's execution of the war and that neither he (Zakaria) nor Kerry support all aspects of the war.

I think this is an appropriate point to note that despite my vehement distaste for Democrats who voted for the war resolution, my position on the matter is not entirely out of line with Zakaria's. I was offended not with the whole concept of an Iraq war, but rather with the disingenuousness with which the administration cloaked their true motivations for the war, the arrogance and callous stupidity of those motivations themselves (and the whole neocon philosophy), their complete disregard for international institutions, opinions, and support, their complete refusal to consider the costs (including opportunity costs) of the operation, and the lack of a sound plan for what to do when the shooting stops, and the sheer spitefulness of the administration towards anyone who raised any of the issues I just mentioned. Kudos to Zakaria for successfully making the case that has eluded so many politicians and pundits these past two years.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Second Thoughts on McCain

Mary Lynn Jones has a column in American Prospect questioning liberal support for John McCain. She writes that for all that Democrats have favored McCain and pandered to him and tried to trump up their connections to him, he is still the enemy.

I can understand her wariness towards the party trying to embrace him in any official sense as he is clearly committed to his party and not interested in abandoning or betraying it, but I can't agree with her overall thesis. While I am quite dissappointed by the degree to which he has allowed himself to be whored out to the Bush campaign, John McCain is still a rare figure in national politics.

McCain is a man of great character and integrity. Appreciation for him should and does cross party lines. His efforts to attack pork-barrel politics and preserve the integrity of the political system against the invasive influence of campaign funding, and his rejection of base partisanship to productively engage the opposite party make him a valuable asset to the entire nation. It is well that Democrats recognize this and talk about him during their campaigns. It demonstrates that they also value (or at least play at valuing) the healthy approach to policy that McCain embodies. I will admit that it did get a bit silly during the primaries when candidates were competing to see who really was best friends with McCain. But it would be sad for me to think that even someone of McCain's quality should need to be regarded more by their party label than their personal qualities.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Bremer and Chalabi

This Jim Hoagland Washington Post column is one of a number of articles I've seen recently detailing the pursuit of Ahmed Chalabi by an Iraqi kangaroo court, which L. Paul Bremer had something to do with arranging. It seems like a fairly bizarre situation, and if anybody is able to dig up and publish the actual story behind what's going on there I'll be very interested to read it. It's just one of those stories I have a difficult time trying to fit into my mental model of the universe.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Wasting Money On Security

Bruce Schneier is a computer security guru. His book Applied Cryptography is considered the standard reference for encryption and secure protocols. He's followed that up with authoritative books exploring social engineering and other security risks, making him a household name among slashdotters. He was interviewed by Newsweek for his opinions on anti-terror measures in the US. Some choice quotes:

"You can imagine living in a community where the landlord keeps hornets’ nests, and he keeps whacking the nests. And then he keeps telling you, you need to buy protective clothing. He’s right, but I wish he’d stop whacking the nest. In a sense that’s what we are doing. Far better for our security would be to deal with the underlying geopolitical situations that cause the problem. That may be politically untenable, but as a security professional, that is the best way to spend your money."


"I think it’s an enormous waste of money. Politicians tend to prefer security countermeasures that are very visible, to make it look like they’re doing something. So they will tend to pick things that are visible even if they are less effective. Training FBI agents in Arabic is a really good idea, but no one is going to see it. Fingerprinting foreigners at the border is a very visible thing that, even if it is less effective, is going to look like we’re doing something."

Saturday, August 07, 2004

A New Dark Age

Sticking with Foreign Policy Mag, Naill Ferguson has a fascinating article about the possible fate of the world should existing powers (the US and EU) collapse and the emerging powers (China, India) fail to emerge. The article is certainly open to criticism in a number of areas, but it offers some thought-provoking new perspectives.

I think Ferguson substantially short sells the impact of technology and trade to unify as much as (or, methinks, more than) disintegrate. These things are causing nation states to decline in power in certain regards, and from a certain standpoint they are shifting power "downward" as Ferguson states in that individuals and organizations are more empowered. But also, as Samuel Huntinton argued (as blogged on July 24th) it is creating more transnational perspectives and power structures. The world is getting smaller, and it seems overly pessimistic to only look at the down side of this. There is much to be gained from creating broad avenues for intellectual and economic exchange for individuals and groups around the globe.

Additionally Ferguson's realpolitik perspective in comparing his future scenario with the 9th century neglects the immense measure of human progress that has passed in the intervening time. Certainly the concepts considered in such an analysis are soft and fuzzy, but human knowledge and perspective has been utterly changed in the past millenium, and while certainly humans are no less savage than ever, I think it a stretch to overlook the tangible benefits of the modes of thinking, of political and economic systems, and moral perspectives developed over the centuries. The way things played out in societies of the 9th century are not necessarily the way they would play out now.

Examining Al Qaeda

Foreign Policy Magainze has a brilliant Think Again article exploring Al Qaeda and Islamic militancy in general. This should be required reading on the subject.

Careful To Inform Ourselves

From my reading of Betrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy I wanted to excerpt a section that Russell himself excerpted from John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Russell uses this section to demonstrate the sort of moderation, forebearance, and acceptance of multiple viewpoints that Russell finds characteristic of the early enlightenment, a reaction to the intolerance, bloodshed, and destruction of the Reformation and the 30 Years War. It serves that purpose, but it also struck me as an elegant statement of collegiality and a guideline for productive discourse. This passage certainly holds with Henry's feelings that people of earlier times had a much better command of the language, and it also has prompted me to use the word "methinks" more often. The excerpt follows:

"Since therefore it is unavoidable to the greatest part of men, if not all, to have several opinions, without certain and indubitable proofs of their truth; and it carries too great an imputation of ignorance, lightness, or folly, for men to quit and renounce their former tenets presently upon the the offer of an argument which they cannot immediately answer and show the insufficiency of; it would, methinks, become all men to maintain peace and the common offices of humanity and friendship in the diversity of opinions, since we cannot reasonably expect that any one should readily and obsequiously quit his own opinion, and embrace ours with a blind resignation to an authority which the understanding of man acknowledges not. For, however it may often mistake, it can own no other guide but reason, nor blindly submit to the will and dictates of another. If he you would bring over to your sentiments be one that examines before he assents, you must give him leave at his leisure to go over the account again, and, recalling what is out of mind, examine the particulars, to see on which side the advantage lies; and if he will not think over arguments of weight enough to engage him anew in so much pains, it is but what we do often ourselves in the like case; and we should take it amiss of others should prescribe to us what points we should study: and if he be one who wishes to take his opinions upon trust, how can we imagine that he should renounce those tenets which time and custom have so settled in his mind that he thinks them self-evident, and of an unquestionable certainty; or which he takes to be impressions he has received from God himself, or from men sent by him? How can we expect, I say, that opinions thus settled should be given up to the arguments or authority of a stranger or adversary? Especially if there be any suspicion of interest or design, as there never fails to be where men find themselves ill-treated. We should do well to commiserate our mutual ignorance, and endeavour to remove it in all the gentle and fair ways of information, and not instantly treat others ill as obstinate and perverse because they will not renounce their own and receive our opinions, or at least those we would force upon them, when it is more than probable that we are no less obstinate in not embracing some of theirs. For where is the man that has uncontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds, or of the falsehood of all he condemns; or can say, that he has examined to the bottom of all his own or other men's opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay, often upon very slight grounds, in this fleeting state of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than to restrain others... There is reason to think, that if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others."

I find Locke, based on Russell's treatment of him, to be admirable in many respects, and well deserving of the place history has given him. His pragmatism and reasonableness set him apart from many of his contemporaries. Where Liebniz, Descartes, and Spinoza construct elaborate, unified theories of philosophy, which, looking back, now appear absurd, Locke had no grand theory and applied himself in areas where he felt that the new empiricism could yield new insights. While certain of his ideas have come to appear to be as absurd as others, they are all guided by a keen intuition and reasonable logical arguments. And as Russell argues, even in many cases where Locke was wrong he created systems of thought that proved very productive to other theorists. He intuitively avoids many of the pitfalls of linguistic issues (universals, substance, and essence and the like) that had much occupied Plato and Aristotle and had sent astray nearly every philospher since the early Greeks. In his embrace of empiricism he laid a sound foundation on which other Enlightenment philosophers would build.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Protecting Our Nation

"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

-George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2004

(He shoulda saved the Mission Accomplished banner for this speech)

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Gone Into Hiding

Points to Harold Meyerson for this Washington Post satire on the sudden dissappearance of neocons in the Bush administration.

Monday, August 02, 2004

High Court to Resolve Sentencing Confusion

The Supreme Court today granted certiorari on two cases that address the open questions in the Blakely aftermath. Oral arguments are scheduled for October 4. (The Court's order may be found here.)

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Movement On Farm Subsidies

This LA Times article is woefully short on details, but it seems the Oxfam-led protest by developing nations in Cancun has yielded results. I'll be curious to see a) the actual terms of the agreement and b) how this will play in US domestic politics (the presidential election in particular) where farm subsidies are next to untouchable.

Update: The Washington Post's coverage adds a few more details. Apparently the "first installment" includes a 20% reduction in subsidies by developed nations, but a couple of loopholes exist that would allow this concession to be substantially reduced.