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August, 2007

Friday, August 31, 2007

The End Of Moqtada?

A few days ago, McClatchy's Leila Fadel sat down with Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki for a wide-ranging interview that's well worth a read. But of particular interest was this section, which Matthew Yglesias alertly flagged:

FADEL: Why not, at this time, when there are troubled relations, and the Mahdi Army is being accused of killing governors and running astray?

MALIKI: I have no problem with meeting him. But he withdrew from the challenges to a large degree and he has big problems within the movement. That is why I have meetings with leaders from the movement but not with Muqtada and I have many efforts for reform and to bridge the mistakes through bilateral or more dialogue. Perhaps what is holding back our talks is my firm rejection of the policies adopted by the movement. And I believe some leaders have begun to understand my position and accept it as the correct position in spite of my firmness. Indeed now is the time for meetings but I believe that meeting the leaders who actually represent the movement is more to the point and more effective in quelling the situation and in isolating the gangs from the good elements and cadres in the movement.†

As Matthew noted, the passage suggests that al-Sadr has lost control of the Mahdi militia, the armed wing of his movement. This isn't surprising, given that al-Sadr has kept a decidedly low profile since the beginning of the Surge, and that according to various reports Iran has been providing support to rogue Mahdi leaders who have grown impatient with al-Sadr's policy of restraint.

The day after the Maliki interview came news that al-Sadr had declared a suspension of all armed activity by the Mahdi militia, in order to purge rogue elements. The move followed a pitched battle between rival Shiite factions in Karbala, which was apparently not authorized by al-Sadr.

Now IraqSlogger is reporting that Sadr City, al-Sadr's fief in Baghdad, is effectively under siege by Iraqi security forces. In the past, the only thing standing in the way of an American crackdown was Maliki's need for al-Sadr's support to stay in power. But now it looks like the Iraqis are even willing to do the job themselves.

Is it possible, just a few short months after his return from post-Surge exile (during which he positioned himself as a unifier by reaching out to Sunnis and trying to transcend Iraq's sectarian divide), that Moqtada al-Sadr is through? The guy's a survivor, so it's hard to count him out. But it looks like the writing's on the wall.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Bully Pulpit

Another thing that occured to me while reading Getting to YES, the basic primer on negotiation, was the Bush administration's emphasis on what Fisher and Ury call positional negotiation. This is where one side locks itself into a firm position and either refuses to budge or is willing to do so only incrementally. The classic example is a buyer and seller haggling over a price, with the buyer starting low and the seller starting high. Either they meet somewhere in the middle or not at all. But the entire process essentially becomes a battle of wills.

They contrast that with principled negotiation, by which they mean not only determining one's negotiating position as a function of one's interests, but trying to understand the other party's interests in order to find creative ways to sweeten the deal for them. This could take the form of a buyer offering a lower price, but agreeing to forego delivery. Or a seller asking for a higher price, but guaranteeing the product. When interests determine bargaining positions, instead of a battle of wills, the negotiation becomes a cooperative effort to find the most mutually beneficial deal.

I think it's fairly obvious that the Bush administration's negotiating style is a pretty hard-nosed game of positional bargaining with a strong emphasis on "take-it-or-leave it" as their opening offer. And this whether they're dealing with the Kyoto Accords, Saddam Hussein, the Iranians, or Congressional Democrats. With the exception of the N. Korean settlement, the Bush administration has made it clear that they like their chances in the event that negotiations fail (what the authors call the BATNA, or Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement). Which is to say, they're willing to duke it out if they don't get what they want, be it in the courts or on the battlefield.

It's essentially an intimidation tactic designed to weaken the will of the folks across the table from them. And according to Fisher and Ury, both experts on negotiation and conflict resolution, it's not as efficient a negotiating method as one based on identifying interests and developing new options for advancing them. Why? Because it often results in "leaving money on the table", negotiators' jargon for mutual benefits that would have come at no cost to either party but which don't make it into the final agreement.

Now just to be clear, there are cases where I think in retrospect that the Bush administration correctly walked away from negotiations. Those with the Taliban preceding the invasion of Afghanistan, for example, where the non-negotiated outcome (had we not prematurely redeployed our resources to Iraq) would have left us in a better position than anything we might have come up with at the negotiating table. [Although it's important to remember that at the time, it appeared to many as if the administration was not paying enough attention to the Russians' Afghan adventure in its contingency planning. In other words, that it was over-estimating its BATNA.]

The Iraq War, as I said yesterday, is not one of those cases. Because while it's clear that Saddam Hussein paid a pretty high price for over-estimating his BATNA, it's equally clear that we did, too. I think the same can be said for walking away from the Kyoto Accords which, while it might not get a lot of domestic play, caused a great deal of resentment abroad. Resentment that, after a brief moment of post-9/11 solidarity, was quick to resurface during the run-up to the Iraq War. The applause that greeted Dominique de Villepin's UN Security Council speech did not occur in a historical vacuum, in other words. And that primed pump of anti-Americanism was one of the uncalculated costs of our previous positional approach.

As I also said yesterday, it looks like the Bush administration has every intention of repeating the same error in its approach to the Iranian dossier. Pre-conditions, threats and public finger-pointing are all hallmarks of rigid positional negotiations. In the case of Iran, which must feel pretty secure in its own BATNA right now, they are also ways of ensuring that no progress will be made.

I'll work up what I think an interest-based, principled negotiation framework between Iran and the US might look like tomorrow.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

How Ya' Livin'?

Large and in charge, but not like El DeBarge.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"I was put out because he just ruined my blissful feeling after class."

-- Yoga practitioner Stephanie King on an inappropriate Yoga guy.†

Posted by Judah in:  Quote Of The Day   

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Best Alternative

Iíve just finished reading Roger Fisherís and William Uryís classic on the art of negotiating, Getting To YES. Originally published in 1981, with a second edition released in 1991 (Iím sure there have been other editions since, but thatís the one I picked off my Dadís shelf in New York), itís as relevant today as it was then.

What I found particularly timely was the discussion of whether to negotiate with terrorists or tyrants. According to the authors, it depends on what they call the BATNA, or Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. Thatís the best possible scenario you could come up with if negotiations either fail or donít take place:

Even with someone like Hitler or Stalin, we should negotiate if negotiation holds the promise of achieving an outcome that, all things considered, meets our interests better than our BATNA. When a war does occur, in many cases it is a move within a negotiation. The violence is intended to change the other sideís BATNA, or their perception of it, so that they will more readily agree to our terms for peace.

Then thereís this :

Governments often make the mistake of assuming that they have a better BATNA than they do Ė for example, when they imply that if "political" and "economic" means fail in a given situation, then there is always the "military option." There is not always a viable military optionÖ

Donít assume you have a BATNA better than negotiating, or that you donít. Think it through. Then decide whether negotiating makes sense. (Emphasis in original.)

I think that captures in a nutshell the mistakes made by the Bush administration, both in invading Iraq and in refusing to negotiate with Iran: It has consistently over-estimated its (our) BATNA.

Experience has shown that the threat of military force to reach a negotiated inspection regime would have been a far more efficient means of containing Saddam Husseinís weapons program (in terms of cost in blood, treasure and regional influence) than the actual use of it has been.

So why didnít we do some last-minute negotiating when our forces were massed on the Kuwait border? Partly because Saddam Hussein had a track record of being an unreliable negotiating partner. But mainly because the Bush administration wildly over-estimated our BATNA. Not in forecasting a quick and decisive military victory (which I donít think anyone doubted), but in ignoring the ease with which our various well-wishers in the area could (and would) spoil the party afterwards.

All of this takes on even more relevance in light of the Bush administrationís refusal to negotiate directly with the Iranians over their uranium enrichment program (the authors consider that setting pre-conditions to negotiations, such as freezing the uranium enrichment process, is tantamount to refusing to negotiate), as well as its refusal to ďtake the military option off the tableĒ.

Both of these tactics are designed to make the Iranians re-consider (ie. downgrade) their BATNA, thereby making negotiations more attractive and concessions more palatable. But they also reflect the Bush administrationís current best thinking on our own. Namely, that in the absence of the Iranians completely caving in on what they correctly consider to be a sovereign right (which is an exceedingly remote possibility, to say the least), we stand a better chance of containing Iranís regional influence (because thatís what this boils down to) through military means than through negotiations.

On the face of it, that seems like a pretty obvious miscalculation. To begin with, the chances of completely crippling the Iranian enrichment program, as the Israelis did to Saddam Hussein's Osiraq reactor in 1981, are pretty slim. At best, we can set it back a bit, but that seems likely to provoke a wider conflict and possibly even all-out war. Again, the danger isn't a defeat at the hands of the Iranian army but the aftermath: A longterm, low-intensity bloodletting with periodic flare-ups that will require an American military commitment for the foreseeable future. Cue the draft, followed not long after by an angry American public and an eventual withdrawal. Like it or not, America is not ancient Sparta, and outside of Hollywood blockbusters, Americans don't have a taste for blood. Contrary to what Dick Cheney thinks, that's a good thing.

Which leaves us with engagement and mutual accomodation. Because despite the neocon tactic of equating any negotiations at all with the Munich Accords (ie. appeasement), effective negotiations allow both sides to maximize benefits and minimize costs. The obvious shortcoming of the Munich comparison is that it assumes that all of our regional rivals/enemies will be negotiating in as bad faith as Hitler was, and that we will be negotiating from as weak a position as Chamberlain was. But the Iranians have actually proven to be pretty reliable negotiating partners, and we're nowhere near as hamstrung as Chamberlain was in 1936, even if the Iraq fiasco has greatly weakened our bargaining position.

Iíll have more on the Bush administrationís emphasis on positional, as opposed to principled, negotiation -- and how this, too, has contributed to its sterling foreign policy record -- tomorrow.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Inventing New Options

I already popped this into the "Must Read" link-box, but I can't over-emphasize how much it really deserves a look. And not just because it basically arrives at the same conclusion I did seven months ago. It's about the clearest strategic analysis of what's now at stake in Iraq that I've seen to date. It also does a good job of identifying the weaknesses of the three major proposals now on the table in order to come up with a viable fourth option. Give it a look. And drop any comments you have here. I'm curious to hear what people think of this.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Ever-Changing Enemy

This is really a piece of work. According to the Bush administration, our enemy -- now known as Violent Islamic Radicalism -- is engaged in a pincer-like tactic, with Sunni extremists ("embodied by al Qaeda and its terrorist allies") on one side and Shiite extremists ("supported and embodied by Iran's Government") on the other. Their goal? To bring down Iraq's "young democracy". Of course, since the only thing keeping Iraq's "young democracy" (or Iraq's young anything, for that matter) viable is American armed forces, they're both doing everything they can to "drive us out". The danger is that, if they succeed in driving us out of Iraq, they'll be emboldened by our retreat and enriched by Iraq's billions of dollars in oil revenues, and thus more likely to carry out attacks here on the homeland. And if they succeed in driving us out of the Middle East entirely, well, why, then, all hell would really break loose.

Now, part of me wants to react to this the way I do when my six year-old son begins arguing with me about something that's just too farfetched to spend a whole lot of time on. Which is to tell him he can argue all he wants, he'll be as wrong when he's done as he was when he started.

But just for the heck of it, here goes. To begin with, as even the White House acknowledges, these two branches of radical Islamic extremism are "vying for control of the Middle East". (Think "Left Behind", only the semi-finals.) Which means they are adversaries (or rivals, or enemies, take your pick). A well-conceived plan would take advantage of that, by perhaps pitting one side against the other, instead of presenting them with a common enemy, thereby allowing them to advance their respective agendas without infringing on each other's turf in the slightest.

Second, given that the admittedly spotty UN embargo was able to essentially cripple Saddam Hussein's army, which benefitted from a state apparatus, does anyone really believe that non-state actors in a post-American Iraq are going to be awash in petro-dollars?

And finally, when has anyone (aside from Osama Bin Laden) talked about the US leaving the Middle East altogether? Oh, that's right. I remember when. Never.

All that aside, though, the White House's talking points on post-Surge progress (ie. "It Makes No Sense To Respond To Military Progress By Claiming That We Have Failed Because Iraq's Parliament Has Yet To Pass Every Law It Said It Would.") are a clear signal that short of Congressional intervention, President Bush is not going to pull the plug on the war. It's Bush's Folly. And the show must go on.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Monday, August 27, 2007

The More Things Change...

Hats off to an old high school classmate, Allan Tulchin, whose relatively arcane academic article on the history of Medieval "marriage-like" legal arrangements has ridden a wave of Perfect Storm proportions into a blog feeding frenzy and full-scale national media phenomenon.

I'm always skeptical of bringing difficult-to-interpret historical evidence to bear in any contemporary public policy debate. That said, the idea that the marriage arrangement as we know it today has survived unchanged through the ages has always struck me as being ripe for debunking. And articles like Allan's help popularize the ways in which marriage and its related arrangements have evolved over time.

The answer to the current debate, on the other hand, has always struck me as relatively simple. (If you believe in the separation of church and state, that is.) Eliminate marriage altogether as a legal category, and make civil unions the legal standard for everybody. Anyone who wants the church wedding can feel free to do so. But the state has no business sanctioning a religious ceremony to the detriment of a civil one.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Put A Huggies On It

Puh-lease. I've gotten a lot more conventional since I became a father, at least in terms of my outlook on child-rearing. Just show 'em plenty of love, and make sure the rules are as fair, clear and consistent as you can humanly manage. That way they can either accept them or rebel against them when they hit adolescence, but at least the choice is clear.

Oh, and don't give orders in question form. Kids need authority figures who have some... authority. I remember thinking on a trip to New York a few years back that the only hope for the City's affluent toddlers is the fact that most of them are raised by West Indian nannies.

Posted by Judah in:  Say What?   

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Light Posting Alert

Sorry about the light posting lately. I've been pre-occupied with my upcoming move to Paris. (Just got a place lined up, which is quite a load off my mind.) I'll also be pretty busy this week tying up loose ends. I'll do my best, but if you don't see much, that's why.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Metrics

Since President Bush feels like making comparisons to the Vietnam War, here's one that seems more appropriate. One of the major problems of that war was the fact that the military based its assessment of the war's progress on metrics that, a) were conceived of in order to prove progress was being made; and b) bore no resemblance to how things were actually evolving on the ground.

Take body counts, for instance. In a conventional war of attrition, relative casualties might indeed indicate which side is actually winning. But in a guerilla insurgency, how many more insurgents you killed this week compared to last is only half the equation. Just as important is how many less civilians joined the insurgency this week compared to last. Throw in the fact that patrol leaders eager to "make" their quotas regularly counted any Vietnamese body as a Viet Cong casualty and you'll understand why the casualty figures had very little bearing on the war's outcome. A black & white photo of a young girl fleeing an American napalm attack on her village, on the other hand, was absolutely devastating.

I was reminded of the question of metrics by this article, admittedly on the Iranian state news agency's English language website, of a press conference held by Iraq's Minister of Electricity who, in the presence of two American military officers, thanked the Iranians for supplying Basra and Wasit with electricity.

Now, think about that for a second. Four years into an American occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, and the Iraqis are thanking the Iranians for their electricity. And this in the same week that the Iraqi Prime Minister was busy cosying up to our good friends, the Syrians.

It might very well be that the civilian death toll in Baghdad has decreased over the course of the Surge, although the numbers have been disputed by enough reliable sources that I have my doubts. And it might very well be that the Surge has improved the security conditions in Iraq, along with other serendipitous events, like the turning of Anbar Sunnis.

The question is, On which of these two metrics are we going to base a continued commitment of American forces to Iraq?

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Yikes!!

In a few weeks time, I'll be moving up to Paris. And the furnished apartment that I'd lined up for the first few months up there just fell through. So now I'm busy surfing through apartment listings, realizing just how crazy the cost of renting an apartment has gotten. And while Paris isn't necessarily the most expensive city in that regard, the actual prices are inflated by the fact that there are so few spacious apartments available. Which explains how some people get away with charging 800 Euros for a 150 sq. ft. studio.

Quite a shock after having spent the past six years in a village where, outside of tourist season, the only traffic jam you're likely to run into is when the sheep are being moved for the winter.†

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Sarko The Slender

Nicolas Sarkozy has often been accused of having an unhealthy influence over the French media. In one famous episode, he allegedly had the editor of Paris Match fired after that magazine ran a cover photo of Sarkozy's at-the-time estranged wife, Cťcilia, with her lover in New York.

Apparently, the message got through, because in Paris Match's August 9th edition, a photo of the French President canoeing with his son was re-touched to remove Sarko's protruding love handles. The magazine's explanation?

The position on the boat exagerrated the bulge. In lightening the shadows, the correction was exagerrated in the printing process.

In other words, all they did was lighten the photo a bit and the pounds just disappeared by themselves. Here's a side-by-side of the original and doctored photos. You be the judge.

Posted by Judah in:  La France Politique   Media Coverage   

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Predictable

Most commentary I've seen on the US-India nuclear deal has focused on wondering why President Bush would basically scrap American anti-proliferation policy to secure what amounts to an overwhelmingly one-sided (in India's favor) deal. But if this article in the Times of India is any indication, the consequences of the deal haven't gotten as much attention as they deserve. Because according to the article, a Pakistani government minister has demanded that we offer the same terms to Pakistan that we gave to India. If not, we run the risk of creating an imbalance in the regional nuclear equation.

This seems like a pretty foreseeable wrinkle. Not surprisingly, no one in the Bush administration seems to have foreseen it.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Fall Guy

Now that's what I call timing. The other day I explained why opposition to the Iraq War marks the end of the post-Vietnam era. Today, Josh Marshall discusses advance reports of a speech in which President Bush plans to invoke the Vietnam War to justify his Iraq War policy.

As I said in my previous post, it's a shame Democrats haven't already gotten a head start on this angle. Opposition to the Iraq War hasn't been nearly as divisive as that of the Vietnam War. The broad middle ground of public opinion has largely reached a consensus that transcends generational and cultural boundaries. Even more significantly, with the exception of the Surge (which came out of left field), President Bush's Iraq War policy has consistently been a matter of catching up to public opinion and facts on the ground, usually 6-9 months after those have coalesced.

So, to repeat a bit of what I wrote the other day, this debate has for all intents and purposes been decided. It's only a matter of time before the Iraq War is drawn down. What's at stake in President Bush's speech isn't so much what will happen as how what happens will be framed. The more extreme elements of rightwing opinion have already trotted out a "stabbed in the back by domestic opposition" meme to explain our failure in Iraq. By re-opening the debates of the Vietnam era, President Bush is taking that argument mainstream.

It's absolutely essential that Democrats push back against this attack aggressively. The good news is that the facts are on their side. There are no acid-dropping, tie dye-wearing, pinko Commie-loving, longhaired, unwashed bogeymen to blame this time around. The folks who oppose our continued presence in Iraq work in the same offices, go to the same schools, listen to the same music, and wear the same clothing as the dwindling few who support it.

Democrats need to look straight into the camera and spell it out clearly for the American people: "The person who is ultimately responsible for the failure in Iraq is the President. Not the troops, not the Democrats, and not the people who oppose the war. But instead of taking responsibility for his failure, President Bush is blaming you. The President is blaming you for his failure in Iraq."

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tin Pan Alley

For those of you interested in the rapid evolution of recorded music sales, there's some news out of France that will probably be a harbinger of things to come worldwide. Neuf Telecom, a telephone/internet service provider, has just inked a deal with Universal Music that will essentially include music downloads in the price of internet access.

The deal is based on a multi-layered access model. For twice the price of an ordinary internet account (30 Euros vs. 15 Euros), the user can download an unlimited amount of any single category of Universal's music catalogue (ie. Pop, Rock, Disco/Funk, etc). For another 5 Euros more per month, they get unlimited access to the entire Universal catalogue.

The mp3 files are inscribed with a Digital Rights Management license that needs to be renewed each month. So they're only readable for as long as you keep your Neuf subscription active.

While it's an interesting proposed solution to the problem of how to make money selling recorded music, there are already a number of problems I can identify right off the bat. The mp3 files come in Windows format, making the deal useless for iPod users. Then there's the question of accessing music catalogues besides Universal's. Obviously, no one's going to duplicate internet subscriptions just to download music. Finally, there's the problem of how to make this kind of deal compatible with some of the licensing deals already struck between the music companies and sites like iTunes.

But I'm not sure any of those are anything more than temporary roadblocks. After all, there was a time when Mac and PC word processing files were incompatible. Even the access being limited to a single company's catalogue can easily be turned into a way to "brand" the ISP.

So this seems like a pretty clever approach. It'll be interesting to see how soon before any American ISP's follow suit.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Markets & Finance   

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Legal Fictions

There's been a lot of background chatter recently about replacing the Maliki government in Iraq, whether by coup or by ballot. Here's Sen. Carl Levin, just back from a fact-finding trip to Iraq:

I hope that the Iraqi assembly, when it reconvenes in a few weeks, will vote the Maliki government out of office and will have the wisdom to replace it with a less sectarian and a more unifying prime minister and government.

I'm not sure where to begin with a remark like that. For starters, just who does Levin have in mind? The reason Iraq skeptics are ready to throw in the towel is because a "unifying prime minister and government" does not exist.

As much as anything, this kind of remark reveals the Iraqi government for the legal fiction it is. It's an unwritten but often declared tenet of international relations that sovereign countries don't meddle in each other's internal affairs. That's why heads of state refuse to endorse candidates in foreign elections. To openly call for a prime minister's replacement borders on open hostilities.

The reality is that, absent American forces, Iraq does not meet the criteria of a sovereign nation. So it's unrealistic to expect a unifying central government. What Levin and others are expressing is simply frustration that despite all our investment of both blood and treasure, we can't even get the pretense of one.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Thing About Slim

The thing about Slim was, he had no shot. Not that it mattered, really. Slim was such a good ballplayer, he almost didnít need one. He could dribble through rush hour traffic with his eyes closed, and thread the needle with a pass while he was counting change. And talk. Slim could talk. Slim couldíve shown up at courtside in a wheelchair and talked his way into a game, Iím sure of it. He had this way of putting you at ease, a patter that snuck up on you and drew you in. When Slim was talking to you, you felt special. Like you were part of a private conspiracy that only you and him knew about. The two of you against the world.

How else could you explain him hanging around at all? Varmont was an exclusive private school on the Upper East Side, all limestone and green ivy. Which just about says it all about the place: white and rich. And even though the playground we used was a public facility, Varmont had exclusive access to it during school hours by special arrangement with the City. So if anyone had complained about Slim, he wouldíve been gone. If it seems farfetched that someone might have complained, consider this: until Slim started coming by, I was the closest thing to a streetkid they had there.

I was a scholarship baby from Brooklyn, easily the toughest kid in the school. This meant primarily that Iíd been listening to rap music since before 1980, and that Iíd given Dexter Tillman Chase the IVth a black eye in the ninth grade for calling me a Jew-boy. Nobody being particularly fond of Dexter Tillman Chase the IVth, I was quickly welcomed the way fresh air usually is. Having made a place for myself, I soon came to feel comfortable in it. I did well enough to renew my scholarship each year (though I was no Einstein), and was captaining the basketball team as a junior.

But Slim, he mightíve been from another planet for all the cloistered world of Varmont knew. I still remember the first time he came by to play...

Continue reading The Thing About Slim>>

Posted by Judah in:  Verse & Prose   

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Atrophy

This is a point that I tried to make here, but which Adam Gopnik makes remarkably well in his article about Nicolas Sarkozy in the New Yorker:

[America's] military weakness has been exposed in Iraq, its economic weakness by the rise of the euro, and its once great cultural magnetism has been diminished by post-9/11 paranoia and insularity. America has recovered from worse before, and may do so again. But it is also possible that the election of Nicolas Sarkozy may be seen not as the start of a new pro-American moment in Europe but as a marker of the beginning of the post-American era.

America's current diminished standing in the world has left a power vacuum in the global geopolitical equation. The longer it lasts, the more opportunistic leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy or Vladimir Putin are going to move in and claim space that used to be ours. That's not to say that France or Russia will become a global superpower capable of unilateral interventions. But they will enhance their global influence at the expense of our own.

The danger is that what used to be unimaginable -- a world without American leadership -- is little by little becoming a reality that people are discovering they can live with.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   La France Politique   

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Facing The Camera

The most striking aspect of this vlog featuring Jonah Goldberg and Peter Beinart debating whether terrorists are soldiers or criminals has nothing to do with what either of them have to say about the issue. (The correct answer being that terrorists share characteristics of both soldiers and criminals, while being identical to neither.) No, what's most striking about it is Jonah Goldberg's vlogging technique. Simply put, the man's got skills.

The key is not just the wide angle shot, with the webcam at about a 25į angle from the screen. It's the way he positions himself facing the screen instead of the camera, so that when he does address the camera, he's slightly turning towards it. The effect, when he's speaking, is that of someone engaged in a conversation who naturally turns towards you, the viewer, to include you in it. And when he's listening, that of a normal human being -- something you rarely see in the vlogging format, where people usually look cramped and dumbstruck by the tight, claustrophobic and unnatural framing that characterizes 99% of webcam videos I've ever seen.

Vloggers take note. This is definitely the wave of the future.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Psychological Torture

The American Psychological Association has scrapped a blanket ban on psychologists taking part in military interrogations "...in which detainees are deprived of adequate protection of their human rights..." in favor of one that prohibits them from participating in interrogations that use any of more than a dozen specified practices. The reasoning was that psychologists served as a moderating influence on the interrogators' conduct:

"If we remove psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die," said Army Col. Larry James, who serves as a psychologist at Guantanamo Bay.

Which strikes me as pretty strong confirmation that whatever's going on in those interrogations is illegal. As one psychologist quoted in the article put it:

"If psychologists have to be there so detainees don't get killed, those conditions are so horrendous that the only moral and ethical thing is to leave."

And alert the media, the judiciary, or both.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Monday, August 20, 2007

The End Of An Era

One point I haven't seen made yet regarding opinion on the Iraq War is that despite GOP attempts to turn it into a partisan wedge issue, America is simply not experiencing the same kind of generational and cultural divisiveness that accompanied the Vietnam War. Now, part of this has to do with the fact that, domestically speaking, the historical context today is nowhere near as tumultuous as it was forty years ago. And what tumult there is has more to do with popular culture adapting to technological advances than with violent political/cultural clashes.

To be sure, America remains divided politically. But simply put, you can no longer tell what side of the debate someone's likely to come down on based on the length of their hair, the color of their skin, the music they listen to, or the syle of clothing they wear. What's more, opposition to the war is not driven by a vibrant pacifist movement, or even a pacifist impulse. War has been rehabilitated as an arm of foreign policy, and has since been waged and endorsed by both Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

There's been no widespread demonization of the military this time around, either. To the contrary, without having seen any polling on the question, I'd be willing to wager that most people who feel like we've failed in Iraq blame the civilian leaders and the brass, not the soldiers. In other words, the debate on the Iraq War signals not a return to the post-Vietnam era, but the end of it.

So far, Democrats haven't taken as much advantage of this as they could have, not in order to win the debate, which for all intents and purposes is over. (The Iraq War will be wound down over the course of the next 18-24 months, depending on how far in that direction President Bush is willing to move before leaving office.) But in order to shape public opinion on how we came to lose Iraq. Instead of discussing their plans for leaving, they need to start framing the withdrawal as a tactical retreat to better contain the mess we've made by going in in the first place.

And above all, they need to point out that there are no hippies to blame this time around. Anyone claiming that opposition to the war caused its failure is blaming a clear majority of ordinary Americans for our defeat.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"We have no findings to suggest anyone famous was involved in the accident."

-- German police spokesman commenting on an accident that injured 11 people during filming of Tom Cruise's latest movie.

Posted by Judah in:  Quote Of The Day   

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Collective Memory

Today marks the 63rd anniversary of the liberation of Aups (the tiny village in the South of France where I've lived for the past six years) by American troops. And as you can tell from the picture below, the date is still very much etched in the collective memory of the village. Every year, a group of avid collectors of WWII-era American Jeeps and memorabilia organizes a procession that culminates in a gathering on the main square.

The commemoration has taken place every year I've been here, under Chirac as under Sarkozy, despite the overwhelming opposition of French opinion to the Iraq War. Which exposes the neocon attacks on French "amnesia" for the reductionist distortions they were. The fact is, no one here has forgotten the sacrifices made by the American people to liberate France. They were just capable of assessing the merits of an invasion of Iraq independently of that history.

French dissent was not betrayal. Just as American dissent is not treachery. Any suggestion to the contrary is demagoguery of the worst kind.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Rope A Dope

I've talked before about the US Army website's news page linking to articles critical of the Iraq War. Today, they've got a link to one about the spinning of casualty reports from the Surge. According to Al Jazeera Magazine, July's reduced death toll (80 deaths compared to three months in triple digits) is due more to the scaling back of offensive operations in Baghdad than to any real gains made in pacifying that city.

Although one of the principle goals of the Surge was to get troops out among Iraqis to win hearts and minds, US forces seem instead to be holing up in the forward outposts they fought to establish in the Surge's early stages. The Israelis are wondering if the change in tactics is related to weakening domestic support for the war effort:

A decline in American activity in Iraq also has been noted by Israeli intelligence, another source said, raising some concern in Tel Aviv that the U.S. military was shying away from offensive operations to avoid higher casualties that would further undermine political support for the war in the United States.

The source said some Israeli officials want the Americans to keep taking the fight to the enemy.

It's funny. Some folks, when they watch The Rumble In The Jungle, think, "If only Foreman had hit Ali harder, he would have won."

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

You're Always A Day Away

You know the political situation in Iraq is bad when potentially disastrous events being postponed is about the closest thing to progress you can find. So it is with the Kirkuk referendum, which has the potential to put Turkey on edge by delivering that oil-rich city to the Kurds, but which is unlikely to take place this year as previously planned.

Of course, given the vast array of irreconciliable differences confronting the various parties, the Iraqi political arrangement seems to reward the "Don't do today what you can put off until tomorrow" approach. But that kind of logic eventually runs into obstacles, often in the form of rotating fan blades.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Oh, And About The Tooth Fairy...

As far as snake oil goes, The Secret seems to be of the pretty high octane variety. Which is an indication of just how far American culture has fallen. Used to be, you had to at least package the old "get what you want by wanting what you get" message in some new shiny wrapper, like The Celestine Prophecy, or Scientology. Now, you don't even need to re-package it. It's just straight-up, infantile magical thinking.

This past winter, when I wanted to teach my son simple arithmetic, we started shooting dice. And I remember the first time I blew on the dice, rubbed them in just the right way, and beat his 11 with double sixes. He looked at me with an expression of awe mixed with surprise, as if he was just discovering that his father was in fact such a high level magician.

Luckily, he quickly caught on that it was just dumb luck. Apparently the folks who believe in The Secret haven't gotten that far yet.†

Posted by Judah in:  Say What?   

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Friday, August 17, 2007

The Insecurity Council

According to Le Monde, Dick Marty, the investigator for the Council of Europe who issued a report on the CIA's European black hole prisons this past June, is set to issue another one this autumn which is sure to grab some attention. This time he's shining the spotlight on the UN Security Council's anti-terrorism "blacklist", specifically:

...the "Kafka-esque" practices and "flagrant injustice" of a committee of the UN Security Council which manages a list of 362 people and 125 organizations, sanctioned for their alleged connections with al-Qaeda or the Taliban...

For someone to be added to the list, all it takes is just one of the fifteen members of the Council to request it and provide a summary of the acts in question, often based on classified intelligence. If none of the other members objects in the next five days, the name is added and published on the UN website.

The activities subject to sanction, such as "facilitating" activities related to al-Qaeda or "the support, in any other way" of the jihadist movement, remain vague. And when people are sanctioned, it's often based "on vague, even very vague, suspicions", according to Mr. Marty, without being informed of them, nor having access to incriminating evidence. (Translated from the French.)

Sanctions handed down by the committee have included everything from freezing of assets to house arrest, so the fact that there's really no judicial process involved is pretty significant. Changes have already been made in the list's administration, allowing those sanctioned to request their removal from it. But their request still needs unanimous consent from the Council (ie. the agreement of whichever country put them on it in the first place) to be approved. More recently, revisions proposed in 2006 included:

...the adoption of more precise definitions, re-examination every six months so that the sanctions remain temporary and preventative, as well as the introduction of judicial oversight and a right to appeal.

Something tells me the publicity surrounding Mr. Marty's report might turn the heat up enough to get them pushed through.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Friday, August 17, 2007

The Pre-Petraeus Report

In yet more telegraphing of next month's report to Congress, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno has suggested that troops rotated out of Iraq next year won't be replaced, meaning American troop levels will gradually be drawn down in 2008. This is fairly consistent with what Lt. Gen. Petraeus said in an interview a few days ago, but which no one seems to have picked up on. The line seems to be "We've made gains, although there have been no miracles. Should they hold, we'll start rotating troops out as their tours come to an end."

Outside of a brief spike this fall, when five brigades rotating in will briefly raise troop levels to their highest level for the Iraq War (171,000), it seems clear that from here on out it's one-way tickets Stateside. The Iraq War debate has for all intents and purposes been settled. Declare victory, rotate home, and blame the Democratic President who orders the last man out.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, August 17, 2007

The Memory Hole

The Dept. of Defense has re-designed its website and one of the casualties is the handy "Detainee Affairs" link that used to be on the leftside navbar. The link was a payload of information, with everything from program descriptions to CSRT transcripts. After digging around a bit, I finally found it on the Press Resources page.

But I think this reflects the Bush administration's desire to downplay this aspect of the GWOT. Gitmo is a disaster, and after six years they finally realize that. Not because they think there's anything wrong with it. It's just that now they realize they can get away with doing the mass detentions under the radar in the "black hole" network. No more links. No more transcripts.†

Every now and then, when it suits their purpose, they'll transfer a high value detainee or two to Gitmo. But Gitmo as we understand it (ie. a largescale detention center) is on its way out.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Other Way, Dick

For someone who was once a militant vegan, I'm surprisingly tolerant when it comes to hunting. I've eaten meat for years now, but even when I was a vegan I considered it less inhumane to hunt an animal (ie. give it at least a chance of getting away) than to raise one for slaughter. Still, there's something about this that makes me do a doubletake. It's from President Bush's executive order directing Federal agencies to make hunting a priority in wildlife and habitat management planning:

Sec. 2. Federal Activities. Federal agencies shall, consistent with agency missions:

...Establish short and long term goals, in cooperation with State and tribal governments, and consistent with agency missions, to foster healthy and productive populations of game species and appropriate opportunities for the public to hunt those species;

So maintaining healthy and plentiful game species is no longer an end in itself, but a way to guarantee better hunting. This is obviously a sop to traditional GOP constituencies, like the gun lobby and culturally conservative hunters. But it also seems like a nod to the evangelicals, whose belief that God gave man dominion over the animals drives so many of the Christian hunting ministries.

Like I said, I have nothing against hunting. But I question whether the Federal government should be taking an active role in promoting it. This administration in particular, given Dick Cheney's track record.

Posted by Judah in:  The Natural World   

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Max Roach, Immortal

This is truly a great loss, not just for the jazz world, but for music and the arts in general. I try to avoid obituaries, because it gets hard to distinguish who deserves special mention for their lifetime. But Max Roach was such a giant of creativity and achievement that it's hard to let his passing go unnoticed. Just read through the guys he was playing with as a teenager -- Bird and Duke, among others -- and you get a sense of what kind of contribution he made to American music and the arts. The man's career reads like a Who's Who of 20th century music and art.

I was introduced to his music through an album I bought as a teenager of his Quintet with Clifford Brown, and to this day, I don't think I've ever heard anyone else equal the combination of technical virtuosity and musicality that I discovered on that record. Later I had the privilege to hear him perform "Survivors" live with The Alvin Ailey dance company at City Center. His passion was so expansive that it filled the hall.

A giant has passed.†

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Hard Place, Tough Talk

I'm thinking this kind of analysis might not make it into the GOP's YouTube debate. Or the Democrats', for that matter. From "Beyond Iraq: Lessons Of A Hard Place", by Anton K. Smith:

Muslim extremist terrorism is not wanton. It has political purpose, is based on warped but attractive religious precepts, and is built around the cause of confronting Western oppression and restoring Islamic dignity. It constitutes an insurgency against the global order. To employ the tools we have by attacking states is counterproductive, since an implicit target of the Muslim insurgency is the system of states itself, at least insofar as it can be forcibly altered to permit reestablishment of the caliphate... (p. 3)

Good thing the monograph is published by the Army War College, otherwise Smith might be accused of rooting for the enemy. Actually, he'll probably be accused of that anyway, seeing as how he works for the State Department. But what, in fact, he's arguing for is a reshoring of the nation-state system, namely through the United States re-assuming its traditional role of guarantor of the global stability:

Our response to 9/11 may have done more to further the interests of our jihadist opponents than our own, in that we have weakened an international system they view as illegitimate and destabilized the Middle East in a manner they now seek to exploit... Perception of the inability of the United States to deliver global security (and unwilling to be constrained by international opinion and cooperative arrangements) will erode global confidence, contribute to economic and political instability, and encourage non-state insurgents. Within the Middle East region, our natural allies in this fight are strong, moderate states, even if some of those states espouse views that run counter to our own. To restore vitality to the system we must begin to reconcile with proto-democratic Iran and secular Syria... (p. 6)

...Promoting the primacy of economic over political development is as crucial to stability in the Middle East today as it was in our own history. In the end, encouraging the growth of strong, vibrant and moderate states in the Middle East is our best hedge against the global jihadist threat. (p.7)

Note the primacy of economic over political development, because that's the thrust of Smith's argument. The problem he has with the Bush doctrine was its emphasis on free elections instead of free markets:

...Strong and economically vibrant middle classes will do more to support our goals than all the military power we can muster. (p. 7)

And while the establishment of socially dispersed economic freedom depends upon security and order, we also need to be realistic:

Our own history tells us states are most often forged in the crucible of violence. If we wish to see mature states in the Middle East, we must make way for violence there, reserving the exercise of force and subversion to those instances when vital U.S. interests are truly at stake... This clash of Islam is internal, reflecting a division within a religion. We have seen something like this in our own history. The bloody battle is on, but it is not ours. Our best hope is to contain and shape the conflict in ways that support the modern states system. Despite the fact states maturing in the Middle East diverge from our conceptual framework, we should avoid undermining upstart republics as the system develops. We have accepted a nuclear-armed religious state wrapped around democratic principles in Israel. We may have to accommodate one in Iran... (p. 7)

It's a sharp analysis, although the Milton Friedman worship makes me a bit uncomfortable. But I'm willing to forgive that to anyone who manages to cite Clausewitz and Kurt Vonnegut in the same article.†

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Second Insurgency

I kind of left off posting about the Iraq reconstruction debacle, but that doesn't mean it's gone away. Apparently last month produced a record number of criminal and adminstrative cases involving corruption in Iraq reconstruction contracts. Unfortunately, that only amounts to 11 people and five companies. Which isn't exactly going to break what Stuart Bowen, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, calls the "second insurgency."

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Fashion Army

What happens when the Chinese military announces it's updating its uniforms to modern, tapered designs? Why, the US military has got no choice but to go one better, of course. But if the Chinese have already gotten dibs on snappy, what does that leave us? High-tech, naturally:

The USFIT program uses 3-D, "whole-body" scanners to record the shape of soldiers' bodies.

"Previously, there was a large opportunity for a sizing error," Joseph Cooper, a USFIT project officer, said in the release. "Using the scanner will give us data to provide the best fit."

The sizing data is archived in the Integrated Database for Engineering Anthropometry of Soldiers to provide a better overall description of the user population, the release states.

"The IDEAS database will also assist developers in the design of current and next-generation clothing and equipment," Cooper said.†

Now that's what I call an arms race. [And on a completely unrelated note, how cool are those acronyms? Is there a Pentagon office devoted just to coming up with those, or what?]

Posted by Judah in:  Say What?   

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Petraeus Tips His Hand

This seems like a pretty big deal, if you ask me. Apparently, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus has announced that he'll be recommending minor troop reductions in his report to Congress next month:

We know that the surge has to come to an end, there's no question about that. I think everyone understands that by about a year or so from now we've got to be a good bit smaller than we are right now.

He stipulates that the reductions should be gradual so as not to jeopardize the "gains" we've made. But it looks like Petraeus is every bit as sharp as people made him out to be when he took the assignment in January. There's no telling what kind of fairy tale the White House political hacks would have cooked up if the report was left to them as planned. By tipping his hand directly to the press, he makes sure their punch isn't spiked with the hard stuff.

So where does this leave Rudy, Mitt and McCain? Seems like they're busy rabblerousing the GOP dead-enders for a policy that's already on ice.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Drumroll, Please

I didn't see much coverage of this while I was on vacation, although I wasn't looking too hard either. But apparently the Dept. of Defense has officially concluded the Combatant Status Review Tribunals for the 14 high-value detainees, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, whose transfer to Gitmo last fall officially confirmed the CIA's black-hole interrogation network. Surprise, surprise, they've all been determined to be enemy combatants. A finding that is still clouded in some legal confusion, since the Military Commissions Act requires they be found "unlawful" enemy combatants. The change in status will give them the right to civilian counsel, though, as well as to challenge the findings in court.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

They Might Be Giants

If you take a look at this White House video of President Bush chatting up the press before going off on a boatride with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, you might understand why the President's advisors made sure Poppy Bush stayed by W's side during the "private" meeting between the two. While both men share the same backslapping style that seems to be so shocking to French sensibilities, Sarkozy is so clearly the sharper intellect that it's almost embarrassing to watch them together. (Sarkozy arrives about halfway through the clip.)

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   La France Politique   

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Options On The Table

With the Bush administration planning to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, and with the US military increasingly singling out Iran as the principle troublemaker in Iraq, it would be easy to mistake the US-Iran conflict for a one-on-one affair. Of course, that would be to ignore the other players involved, most immediately Israel and the Arab states of the Middle East, all of whom have vested interests in the containment of Iran's regional ambitions.

But there are wider, non-regional interests at stake, and it should come as no surprise that these hinge upon energy considerations. Take, for example, the recent deal signed between Iran and Turkey to construct a pipeline to provide natural gas to the European market. At a time when the US is desperately trying to isolate Iran, American strategic goals run headlong into those of our allies. Namely, the need for the EU to diversify its energy suppliers, thereby reducing its dependence on Russian natural gas. So at a time when we should be consolidating our alliances and trying to weaken those of Iran, our policies run the risk of doing just the opposite.

The problem with the Bush administration hawks who want to confront Iran militarily isn't whether they're right or wrong on the merits of their case against Tehran. (Iran's intentions are impossible to know for sure, and even less possible to predict into the future.) It's whether they've realistically assessed the potential for success.

Munich, 1936 has become the common refrain for those advocating an attack. But while Chamberlain need not have left those meetings with a worthless agreement, no more could he have realistically confronted Hitler's aggression militarily at that time. In other words, a military option with no realistic chance of success is not a real option.

On the other hand, the Iranian-Turkish natural gas pipeline could easily serve as a wedge to weaken Russia's support of the Iranian nuclear energy program. In response to the deal, Russia has already announced that it won't supply any gas to Turkey beyond the amount they've contracted for, as they did just last winter. With Iranian gas production lagging far behind their reserves, that could leave Turkey -- and Europe -- feeling this winter's bite. And that's an option that might prove more effective than any military strike.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Runway Traffic

One thing I've noticed from my recent trips to New York is that airport delays seem to be less and less common, despite the higher numbers of travellers and increased security measures. Runway delays, on the other hand, seem to have dramatically increased. All four of my flights experienced serious delays after leaving the gate or upon landing, mainly due to increased takeoff lines, or the need to taxi across active runways to get back to the gate. It's still pretty incredible how painless the trip is, given the distances involved. But I could kind of feel the system stretching at the seams.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Going By The Book

I'm not sure I'd want to be Mike Moore, a Deputy Sheriff in Elko County, Nevada, when his wife, Charlotte, got back home Sunday morning. On the other hand, if I were a citizen of Elko County, I'd feel pretty safe.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   Say What?   

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

300 Bridges Too Far

The in-flight movies I saw going to and coming from New York: "A Bridge Too Far", which deals concretely with the Second World War, and "300", which deals metaphorically with the Bush administration's effort to re-shape the Middle East by military means. Between them, they demonstrated how Hollywood in particular, and popular culture in general, usually serves a propaganda function during a war, while providing a more critical perspective once the war is actually over.

"A Bridge Too Far", which I saw coming to New York, fits neatly alongside other post-War fictional treatments of WWII, like "Catch-22" or "The Naked and the Dead". While the individual soldiers are portrayed heroically, the military command is rife with politics, careerism and ego. As a result, good soldiers are needlessly sacrificed to carry out a plan doomed to failure. Those who foresee the plan's flaws are either shunted aside or urged not to "rock the boat".

"300", on the other hand, is among the most shockingly militarist American movies I've ever seen. In no uncertain terms, it equates honor with discipline, glory with dying in battle, and leadership with physical dominance and brutality. Freedom (which apparently means the right to serve as cannon-fodder) must be paid for in blood. The danger from without comes at the hands of an androgenous enemy who uses pleasure to first seduce and then enslave his minions. Submitting to him is represented in a not-so-veiled way to sodomy. Those who recognize the "threat" are idealists. Those working to undermine them from within are the "realists". The takeaway from the film is that with time, deaths that seem needless and wasted will come to be seen as heroic and visionary. In other words, whether or not the "Persians" represent Iran and the next war or Iraq and this one, Sparta certainly represents what the neocons would like America to look like.

Supporters of Bush's folly in Iraq often point to the sacrifices this country made to win WWII. And during the war, Hollywood certainly churned out a ton of propaganda films that functioned -- like "300" -- to support the war effort. But even the universal acceptance of that war's noble aims didn't blind people to the shortcomings of the military command, all of which were vigorously lampooned and scathingly attacked once the war was over.

The turnaround was even shorter for the Vietnam War, which is part of what accounts for the common refrain of "Support the troops". But that's only half the equation of what the past sixty-odd years have taught us. Support the troops, yes. But question the generals. And hold the Commander-in-Chief accountable.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Iraq   

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Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Even More Reflections On New York

To follow up on some earlier thoughts, New York has always been a city where new arrivals, lured by the cultural roil of the City, managed to add some new element to it that created something new and unique. Throughout the 20th century, the results have gone on to have a global cultural impact. Whether it was Southern and Mid-Western jazzmen during the Harlem Rennaissance, or the returning GI's and bohemian avante-garde turning post-War Greenwhich Village into a beat paradise, what shook New York went on to shake the World: Swing, Be-Bop, Post-Bop, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art.

While I was busy developing the proposition that my generation represented a break with that tradition, I realized that in fact we are perfectly consistant with it. Because if on first glance hip hop, rap, graffiti and breakdancing all seem like indigenous New York art forms, they actually represent the demographic shift in immigration to New York during the Seventies and Eighties.†

So while professionals and the middle class might have been fleeing to the suburbs during New York's dark days, a steady tide of Caribbean immigrants began to arrive. Anyone familiar with hip hop's roots will know about Kool Herc, a Jamican sound system DJ, and his formative influence on the early DJ culture. Likewise, many of the early graffiti writers and breakdancers were Puerto Rican or Dominican.

I'm not sure if the tension I recall from the mid-Eighties between "native" New Yorkers and the newly arrived existed during the previous immigration waves. And by that, I don't mean the kind of racism that greeted 19th century immigrants. In the Eighties, there was a palpable resentment towards the new wave of Reagan-era Yuppies that had less to do with race (unless it was reverse racism against their extreme "whiteness"), and more to do with class.

More significantly from the point of view of culture, the demographics had again shifted. Instead of attracting the starving artists and desperate refugees who create culture, New York began attracting an affluent class that consumes culture. And that trend has only accelerated in the post-Giuliani era, where New York has for all intents and purposes adopted a third-world colonial profile: wealthy non-native elites who inhabit the center, with an indigenous servant class (cashiers, drivers, cleaners, etc.) that commutes from the periphery. And while the elites might be multi-ethnic in appearance, they share an identical "dominant" mainstream culture of globalized consumerism.

The result is a stifling sense of conformity, which in the New York I grew up in was the mark of insignificance. It's no coincidence that the worst of all possible transgressions among early rappers was to "bite" someone else's style. Uniqueness was valued above all else, and even if rap quickly became brand-conscious, the emphasis was still on appropriating elements into an individual statement, not copying a style.

There are still individuals who stand out for one reason or another, but I've yet to see anyone who struck me as representing a distinctly "New York" style. Which makes me wonder what cultural innovation will result from the blend of New York's current indigenous generation and its new arrivals. What will the next New York School send out into the world? Or has the globalized consumer economy and YouTube rendered that model of distinct poles of culture obsolete?

Questions that only time can answer.†

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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Saturday, August 4, 2007

More Reflections On New York

Just a few scattershot observations from the week I've spent here so far:

First, I don't remember New York ever being so crowded. I'm not even talking about the tourist spots, like the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty, where the waiting times were about an hour to get in and half that to get out, but which I'd promised to the Lil' Feller based on my 1970's-era recollections of strolling in and out at will. No, I'm talking about walking down the street just about anywhere in Manhattan. Granted it's summertime and peak tourist season, but still, I get the feeling that there are way more people on the street than when I last lived here in 1996, or the times I've visited since. It reminds me of what a friend from SoCal said the first time he came to New York: "It feels like every time I take a breath, three or four people have already beaten me to it." Nowadays, it's more like thirty or forty.†

Second, and something I took mental note of last time I was here, is that I can't remember the last time I felt threatened or menaced in the City. An incident on the subway yesterday brought that home. Some bike-messenger-looking dude got on the train with his slicked out bike, and he was holding it upright on its rear tire like only a wannabe bike-messenger-looking dude would ever hold his bike. At first it was kind of annoying -- if you're gonna have the slicked out bike and the attitude then at least ride the damn thing instead of bringing it onto the subway and getting in everybody's way -- but since it wasn't actually in my way, I didn't say anything. But then, just as the car empties out some and I'm about to sit down next to my son, he moves it to where it's right in my face. So I pointed that out to him. Politely. And he starts getting loud about how it's "...not too smart to pull that macho shit in front of your son, because I could be crazy and just pull a gun out on you and blow you away." But he did so while moving the bike out of my way, which just reinforced the contrast between the days (that I remember very well) when what he was saying was very true, and today, when it isn't. I consciously chose not to escalate the situation and he got off at the next stop, but at no time did I feel threatened in the very least. (After the dude had left, a gentleman sitting across from me who gave every appearance of knowing what time it was†complimented me on how I had handled the matter.)

Third, if you're wondering how to get a six-year old boy to enjoy a trip to the Metropolitan Museum, it's called the Medieval Armor gallery.†

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Reflections On New York

New York is and always has been a turf war. Reminders of that fact litter the City, from Prospect Park's monument to the Maryland 400 ("What brave fellows I must this day lose!" -- G. Washington) to Umberto's Clam Bar ("What made them want to come and blow you away?" -- B. Dylan).

The question -- which at its most succinct boils down to, "Who does the City belong to?" -- is one that†I've been contemplating since at least adolescence. Back then, in the mid-1980's, the battle lines were clearly drawn, with Yuppies, the Bridge & Tunnel crowd and tourists on one side, and "New Yorkers" on the other. And while Mayor Koch may have famously declared that anyone who'd been here for six years could consider themselves a New Yorker, my standards were considerably more restrictive.

Later, on my first visit home after leaving to attend Stanford University, I did a photojournalism assignment on the changes my neighborhood -- Park Slope -- had undergone in the previous five years. With all the clarity of an innocent eye, I identified the proliferation of real estate offices along Seventh Avenue as a key indicator of the neighborhood's changing identity.†The changes were perhaps even more dramatic in SoHo and the Lower East Side, where friends of mine had grown up in barren wastelands now transformed, as if by magic, into affluent enclaves.

Later still, I came to realize that it's a question confronted by each successive generation of New Yorkers, whose identity is inextricably bound up with that of a City constantly reinvented by its new arrivals. To lay claim to the City is to place one's memories above others' aspirations. And yet, who has ever grown up in New York without in some way laying claim to it?

For my generation, though, the question resonates perhaps more than for others. After all, we grew up at a time when the City's very viability was very much in doubt. I remember mountains of garbage lining the streets during the Sanitation workers strike, and biking to school a half-hour away during the Transit workers strike. Then there were the blackouts, and the looting, which served as an apt metaphor for the opportunistic lawlessness that seemed to permeate the City at the time.†

But there was also a sharper edge to the violence. The emptying of the state's psychiatric institutions turned the City's streets into a diagnostic manual of mental illness. There was my boyhood neighbor, disfigured by a jar of acid tossed into his face by a stranger at the door. There were razor blades in Halloween apples, and mean-spirited eggings that quickly evolved into lightbulbs being tossed into crowds.

For the first time, more people were leaving New York than arriving, and†no one knew for sure if the City itself, as an entity and a social experiment, was going to survive. The process of Urban Blight had been documented and confirmed. That of Urban Renewal hadn't. The artists squatting SoHo's industrial lofts were considered nuts, not only because no one had ever tried to "recycle" the City's obsolete architecture before, but also because they were going to such lengths to stay in the City. It's one thing to transform a ship's boiler room into a stateroom. It's quite another to do it on the Titanic while everyone else is busy launching lifeboats.

Even if things looked less uncertain by the 1980's, it was still the decade of wildings, the Crown Heights riots, Howard Beach and Bensonhurst, to say nothing of the crack vials by the thousands that littered the gutters.†So if our generation felt that you had to earn the right to call yourself a New Yorker, we had our reasons.

That time is long gone, and thankfully so. But still the question lingers. Yesterday morning I brought my son to Central Park early to try to find a place to fly his new radio-controlled plane. For whatever reason, I'd never dream of jumping the gate at Sheep's Meadow, which doesn't open til 11 am. The Meadow, as we called it, was the only section of the park that was truly maintained during my childhood. It was also the only section that ever closed. One was directly related to the other, and it was a point of honor to respect the off-hours.

The Heckscher ballfields, however, were another story. My son and I had watched a couple of softball league games there this past weekend, and I was surprised to find them fenced off yesterday, since I can't ever remember them being closed. Throw in the fact that there was no sign posted that clearly stated they were actually closed, and that the chicken wire barrier across the entrance was attached by a plastic fastener that was very easily unfastened. Needless to say, I did what any New Yorker of my generation would do: I slipped my son through the gap in the barrier and started flying the plane.

We went through most of the plane's battery charge under the watchful eye of a NYPD cruiser which eventually pulled off once it became clear that we weren't going to tear up the lawn anytime soon. Just after the plane gave out, a Parks Dept. groundskeeper approached us and politely told me that we'd have to leave. The fields were off-limits and the plane wasn't allowed.†

I wasn't going to make his life difficult so we left. But the episode served as a punctuation mark to the question that's been dogging me for so long. Thirty years ago, anyone could use the fields at any time, and they were a mess. Now, only registered leagues can use them and they're immaculate. Who does the City belong to?

Not to me, that's for sure. At least, not any longer. And not to my son, who's growing up in France. The page has turned, not only on the streets, but above them, too, where tower after tower of high-rise buildings are being built at a pace that makes the mind reel.†Mine was the first generation of New Yorkers to have no memory of the City skyline without the Twin Towers. Yesterday, from atop the Empire State Building (once again the City's pre-eminent skyscraper), I saw tomorrow's skyline, the massive shells that will soon house the next generation of New Yorkers.

The kids who grow up in them will make the City their own, navigating its streets until every slate of pavement is indelibly mapped onto their very identity, just like we did. Like us, they might think the City belongs to them. And they'll be right. At least for a moment, anyway.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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