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January, 2008

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Heads We Win, Tails They Lose

It looks like I was a bit premature in my previous comments about the state of the Democratic campaign. Obama really does look like he's changing the political landscape in the way he needs to do in order to pull this out. No telling if the trend holds, but if he does end up winning the nomination, it would be pretty tough not to admire the story arc.

Meanwhile, for no real reason I found myself spontaneously and very forcefully declaring earlier this evening in a conversation with a friend that John McCain doesn't stand a chance in the general election, against either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. And surprised as I was to find myself saying it, I realized as the words left my mouth that I really believe that's true.

Clinton's mastery of policy detail would simply outclass McCain in a debate, and she's smart enough to adopt her disarming, charming persona (the one she used so well to deflect the question about why she's unlikable) to do it. As for Obama, even granting that McCain might edge him out for the independents and centrists (which I really don't see happening), there's a possibility Obama could actually win over some of the disenchanted evangelicals who would never support McCain. But beyond the polling and demographics, both Obama and Clinton are just so much more visibly dynamic and alert than McCain that the difference would be too apparent over the course of the campaign.

Just as importantly, if McCain wins the GOP nomination, it will be a default victory. His poll numbers since last year show that. Republican voters have at one time or another virtually begged every other candidate -- with the exception of Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter and Alan Keyes -- to take the nomination from him. The fact that they've wound up coming back to McCain says more about the rest of the field than it does about their enthusiasm for him.

What it all means is that the idea floating around out there that Democrats should be wringing their hands and biting their nails, worried that no matter who they vote for they'll wind up sending the wrong candidate out to the general election, thereby snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, is a total bunch of crap. Both Obama and Clinton are strong candidates, and regardless of how tough the battle for the nomination is, the party's going to rally around the winner come the convention. And then whichever one of them is the Democratic nominee, they'll promptly go out and turn John McCain into a pile of chopped liver in a crewneck sweater.

There. You read it here first (unless you read it somewhere else before).

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Republicans Only?

A lot has been made of the fact that by winning Florida, McCain just won his first Republican-only Republican primary. I haven't seen mentioned anywhere the possibility that independent voters might have prepared for the fact that the Democratic primary was invalidated by re-registering as Republicans.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Sodfather

Every now and then, one man's insanity becomes so powerfully sane that it's worth paying attention to. Tim Dundon is just such a man:

Instead of studying what he was doing and implementing it, the county came after Dundon because "...they were afraid that good health was gonna break out." Of course, Dundon's the type of American original that counties have been trying to shut down for two hundred years. Fortunately for us, they haven't managed to yet.

(Via The Revealer.)

Posted by Judah in:  The Natural World   

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

After South Carolina

I optimistically promised some thoughts on the state of the Democratic campaign yesterday, before the flu bug I'm fighting off sent me to bed early. In the meantime, it occurred to me that we've entered the phase of the campaign where the horserace coverage kind of takes a backseat and the organization kicks in. So to a large degree (and barring any major gaffes on either side), I think that what will happen on February 5th is already decided, whether or not the pundits or the polls manage to accurately predict the outcome.

That said, what strikes me as significant about the very tumultuous month of campaigning we've just seen is that it has prevented both Obama and Clinton from fully imposing their narratives on the campaign. After a moment where Obama looked poised to ride a post-Iowa wave of euphoria straight to the nomination, it has become clear that hope, while a major part of any successful formula, won't be enough. Neither will bi-partisanship, which despite being warmly received by Obama's Republican admirers (no surprise there given the GOP's 2008 chances) is regarded with either suspicion or derision by most self-identified Democrats. So while Obama continues to surprise and impress with his ability to attract new voters and thereby change the political landscape to his advantage, and while he does so largely with these themes, he'll have to find some way to graft some other element onto his core message if he's going to attract the rest of the Democratic base.

For Clinton, the story is similar. In the aftermath of Iowa, the air of inevitability that she hoped to ride to the nomination took on a close resemblance to the political equivalent of the Titanic. But despite the iceberg that Iowa tossed into its path, the Clinton campaign has managed to not only survive its disastrous maiden voyage and right itself, it has somehow managed to recloak itself with an air of... inevitability. It's a neat trick, but one that is betrayed by the fury with which she, her husband and various and sundry proxies have been campaigning.

Meanwhile, if neither candidate was able to fully impose their narrative on the campaign, neither, too, were they able to distance themselves from their perceived weakness. What's most significant here, though, is that neither has actually suffered for it. What do I mean by that?

Again, let's start with Obama. Despite his ability to take the Clinton campaign's post-Iowa barrage of bare-knuckled, hard-nosed, tag-team politicking and remain standing, he's left many observers (Josh Marshall here, for example), unimpressed with his ability to fight back against Clinton's attacks. In other words, the questions about his toughness linger, even if the impact of his opponents' attacks has been put in doubt. (With all the comparisons that have been made between Obama and Reagan, it won't be long, I'm sure, before we start hearing talk about the Teflon Candidate.)

The same thing, though, holds true for Clinton. Her Achilles' heel was supposed to be the polarizing effect of her take-no-prisoners brand of politics. But while Bill Clinton's role in the campaign has drawn quite a bit of criticism, it has also (up until South Carolina) seemed to work. It's also far from universally accepted that Clinton has in some way crossed the lines of a hard-nosed political campaign, and some have even been reassured by her combatancy.

What this all means to me is that the campaign has served its function very well. No one got a free pass, the major candidates' strengths and weakness were brought out, and both Clinton and Obama had to fight from a position of frontrunner and comeback kid. What it also means, though, is that from here on out, it favors the status quo. And unless there's some seismic shift in the political landscape, the status quo favors Clinton.

It could be I'm speaking on the eve of just such a seismic shift, given all the endorsement moves being made this week. If so, we could see a major surprise come February 5th. But truth be told, I have a hard time seeing Obama do better than nibble away at the edges and draw the race out.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Lying In His Sleep

I know it's a bit stale, but I just saw the video of Bill Clinton dozing off during an MLK memorial service. The footage is damning enough given the racially charged atmosphere that preceded it the week before on the campaign trail. And the unfavorable comparison with Barack Obama's inspiring performance at Ebenezer Baptist is obvious. But it also struck me as revealing that the first thing Clinton does when he catches himself dozing off is to immediately nod his head and pretend as if he'd been listening. Take a look at 0:47 and again at 1:18 of the clip. It's as if his first instinct upon waking is to lie.

It's unfortunate that the damage he's done to Hillary's credibility is inescapable, although I don't think it will necessarily prove fatal to her chances for the Democratic nomination, or irreversible come the fall should she wind up the nominee. The same can't be said, as far as I'm concerned, to the damage he's done to his own credibility. At the risk of repeating myself, I was never very susceptible to the much-vaunted Clinton charisma while he was president. It was largely in his role of ex-president that he won me over. And if that role represents an office of some sort, Clinton has for all intents and purposes abdicated it.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Monday Flu Blogging

You may have noticed that I've instituted what seems like a radical measure among bloggers and begun taking the weekend off. Independently of that, though, I'm sick as a dog, so I don't think I'll be up for the Louvre today. I will get some thoughts on Obama's South Carolina victory and the Democratic campaign in general up, though. Meanwhile, I know it's the Super Bowl bye week and all, but I'm still a bit surprised that this hasn't gotten more press attention.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Threats

Remember how removing the threat of an American military strike was supposed to allow the political faultlines in Tehran to resurface, enabling Iranian moderates to push back against Ahmadinejad's brand of radicalism? Not happening. In fact, according to the LA Times, so many of the reform candidates for Iran's parliamentary elections have been barred from running that they're threatening to boycott the elections entirely should Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei reject their appeal.

On the other hand, a more credible threat is being mounted from Ahmadinejad's right by former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani. As negotiator, Larijani was able to balance an appearance of flexibility with a refusal to compromise. So he represents more of a change in tone than policy from Ahmadinejad.

In any event, I'm increasingly of the opinion that, in the final analysis, the actual consequences of the Iran NIE will bear no resemblance to what people predicted at the time of its release.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Friday, January 25, 2008

More Progress

I can't resist flagging this article about the first women's soccer match ever held in Saudi Arabia. The match, in which The Prince Mohammad bin Fahd University team defeated visitors Al Yamamah College on a penalty shoot out, was played in front of a capacity crowd of 35,000... women. The referee and line officials? Women. Why? you might ask. Because no men were allowed into the stadium.

Hey, at least the ladies'll be able to drive themselves home after games sometime soon.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Eighty-Sixed

Lately it's seemed like anyone with a blindfold and a dartboard can pick a primary winner. What separates the men from the boys when it comes to political prognostication these days is marital predictions. So, now that Dennis Kucinich is out of the presidential race, we'll see just how prescient my pre-Iowa handicapping really was:

Same goes for Kucinich who, like most ugly men, can't seem to turn down an opportunity to show off his wife's good looks. The fact that she's almost certain to leave him before his withdrawal announcement hits the wires (asking herself as she does whether he was even in yet) makes a long hard slog all the more likely. Kucinich will stick around, if only to keep Dem debates from turning into the political version of Celebrity Death Match, until late spring. Count on a tell-all book from the former-Mrs. Kucinich detailing UFO sightings, vegan potlucks and other unseemly practices just in time to exploit the marketing opportunity of the nominating convention this summer.

Granted, I was a little bit off about the timing of his withdrawal, but I'd forgotten how quickly Kucinich would be eighty-sixed from the debates. I'm banking on a divorce announcement by this time next week. And I'll go out on a limb and wager that the title of her book will be "Don't Hate Me Cuz He's Ugly: How To Win When Your Husband Loses".

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Talking Nuclear Turkey

You wouldn't know it from the American press, but President Bush just cleared the way for a nuclear cooperation agreement with Turkey that had been on ice since 2000, submitting it to Congress for approval on Wednesday. The deal, signed under the Clinton administration, had been stalled by a subsequent finding that certain Turkish "private entities" posed a proliferation threat. That threat has been addressed by Turkey, according to President Bush in his message accompanying the bill to Congress.

This is a very significant move, part of a larger initiative I've written about before, designed to help Turkey secure its energy supply, and to keep it from slipping further out of the West's sphere of influence and into energy-based tactical alliances with Russia and Iran. The nuclear angle will become even more central to that effort given the difficulties encountered in moving the EU's Nabucco pipeline project forward.

The deal does not allow for the transfer of sensitive technology or data, and the Secretaries of State and Energy as well as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission all signed off on the updated Nuclear Proliferation Assessment Statement (NPAS). Still, the timing of the Bush administration's announcement seems suspect, coming as it does on the heels of a meeting between President Bush and Turkish President Abdullah Gul where energy policy figured prominently, as well as on the eve of Turkey's call for tenders for the construction of its first reactor. It also comes in the immediate aftermath of Sibel Edmonds' accusations, reported widely in the English and Turkish press but ignored Stateside, that Turkey was the longstanding beneficiary of nuclear secrets funneled out of Washington.

The agreement is being submitted for disapproval, which means it will take a Congressional majority within the next ninety days to keep it from taking effect. And the bulk of the NPAS is classified, so it's unlikely we'll ever know just who the "private entities" are, what they were doing, and what's been done to remedy the situation. So despite Turkey's strategic importance to American regional interests, it seems like a bit of media attention on the issue might be worthwhile.

Posted by Judah in:  Turkey   

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Friday, January 25, 2008

We Try Harder

That's the ad campaign that Avis launched in the early sixties to turn its no. 2 position in the rent-a-car business into a strength:

The results were dramatic…

In 1962, just before the first 'We try harder' ads launched, Avis was an unprofitable company with 11% of the car rental business in the USA. Within a year of launching the campaign Avis was making a profit, and by 1966 Avis had tripled its market share to 35%.

It's the first thing I thought of when I saw that Chinese President Hu Jintao had met with the chairman of Kazakhstan's senate on the latter's state visit to China. Now it's not surprising that China would want to provide a warm welcome to its neighbor, especially its neighbor that ranks eleventh in the world in both gas and oil reserves. But a president giving face time to the visiting senate leader of a "minor country" is almost a breach of diplomatic protocol, and it's the sort of thing that's hard to imagine an American president doing, even though the impact of the gesture is undoubtedly significant.

On a related note, compare the travel itineraries of President Bush, who just made his first visit to the Middle East after seven years as president, to Nicolas Sarkozy, who in less than a year has visited the Middle East, North Africa, China and now India, signing major contracts and nuclear cooperation agreements everywhere he goes, and vastly improving France's strategic position in the process. The president of the United States might very well be the most powerful person on earth, but that shouldn't get in the way of trying hard.

Posted by Judah in:  China   Foreign Policy   La France Politique   

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Morning News Roundup

Top of the news and stories of interest from the American and global press:

That's it for this morning.

Posted by Judah in:  Morning News Roundup   

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Reverse Peter Principle

There are two really spectacular aspects of the Jerome Kerviel story, the French rogue trader responsible for $7 billion in losses at Societe General. The first leaped out at me from the very first accounts, namely that although his trades were being described as fraud, it was hard to see where his angle was. Now the WaPo confirms that he was basically balancing the books by recording fake trades to offset real ones, but he wasn't cashing out his positions.

Which leads to the second spectacular aspect. Were it not for the global sell-off that hit the markets Monday, his positions were potentially winning ones. Not only that, some analysts are speculating that the global panic was in part caused or at least contributed to by Societe General's secret liquidation of his unauthorized investments. Which leads me to wonder why SG would cash out winning positions just because they were unauthorized, especially on such a massive scale? Surely there was a more measured way to deal with the problem.

As for Kerviel's angle, it's possible that he was playing long, intending to cash out gradually over time. But it almost seems from the coverage that he was trying to prove something (ie. that despite not coming from the best schools and upper crust society, he "belonged"), more than profit from his trades. Unfortunately for Kerviel, though, by the logic of these things (ie. the relevant legal statutes) he's most likely going down.

But every time I read about a criminal mastermind or hacker savant, it occurs to me that outlaws suffer from a reverse Peter Principle. Regardless of his authorization, Kerviel's trading record apparently looked pretty good up until Sunday night. And I'm not sure how many traders were looking too hot as of Monday evening. So it could be that, judging his record from a legal "absolute value" perspective, he deserves a promotion. At the very least, his ability to devise methods to avoid security detection seems like it could prove pretty valuable to Societe General in the future. Instead he'll be doing time, while some other trader rises to the level of his own incompetence.

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

The New Black Gold

As if all the soap opera-like drama of the past couple weeks involving pipeline shutdowns and jockeying for supply routes through Eurasia and the Balkans weren't enough, now comes news that Iran and Russia are spearheading an effort to bring the long-rumored "natural gas OPEC" to fruition. A draft drawn up by Iran last year and tweaked by Russia will be presented this June to the members of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum. The group's member nation's control 73% of the world's gas reserves and 42% of its production.

Needless to say, such a cartel poses a strategic problem for the US and EU. But there are plenty of faultlines that they could take advantage of to create a wedge between Iran and Russia. In particular, Iran is in desperate need of foreign investment to develop its natural gas capacity. The fatal flaw of current American policy is that by continuing to drive Iran and Russia together in a tactical arrangement, eventually we'll have helped them form the basis of a strategic alliance.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Not So Fast

I have to admit I was a bit surprised when I saw the news earlier this week that Israel had put a new spy satellite into orbit with the help of a rocket designed, built and launched by India. Apparently India's Communist Party was, too, and has demanded that the government -- which depends on its support to maintain its majority coalition -- explain the extent of the two countries' satellite cooperation. According to Defense News, India, which has been desperately seeking a military satellite capacity, is interested in leasing the Israeli satellite, which was reportedly launched to spy on Iran.

This isn't the first time that the minority Communist faction of Indian PM Singh's governing coalition has caused him problems. If you'll recall, they're also responsible for the US-India nuclear deal being stalled in the Indian parliament. There's something refreshing about the way a democratic system can screw up the best-laid plans of realpolitik strategic planners.

Posted by Judah in:  India   

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

It's The Economy, Stupid

Regular readers of this site will already be aware of the flour shortage in Pakistan, since I flagged it three weeks ago. So this lede from McClatchy should come as no surprise:

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has survived constitutional crises and three assassination attempts, but the more prosaic challenge of supplying flour to his people could be his government's undoing.

As an election scheduled for Feb. 18 approaches, the voters' main grievance appears to be a severe shortage of wheat flour, which is used to make roti, the round flatbread that's a staple food for Pakistanis.

Meanwhile, there have been a string of stories this past week regarding Musharraf's loss of support among the current and former army officer corps that makes up his real base of power. The likely beneficiary is his replacement as Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Ashfaq Kiani. I predicted back in November that Kiani would be running the country before the month was out. It looks like it took him a bit longer to make his move. But don't be surprised to see him do some serious maneuvering, either just before or just after the upcoming elections. The assumption that we'll be stuck with Musharraf as "our man in Islamabad" when we've got the President of the Pakistan Golf Association waiting in the wings strikes me as inherently flawed.

Posted by Judah in:  Pakistan   

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Third Round Of Iran Sanctions

I didn't notice much discussion of them, but there were a couple of major developments on the Iran nuclear dossier yesterday. To begin with, representatives of the 5+1 (the permanent UNSC members and Germany) who met in Berlin announced that they'd agreed on a text for a third round of UN sanctions against Iran. The new sanctions themselves are largely watered down from what the US and the EU 3 had been hoping for before the release of the NIE in December. But the fact that despite the NIE's findings, Russia and China were willing to keep the matter before the Security Council -- instead of referring it back to the IAEA as Iran has demanded -- sends a signal to Tehran that there's a price to pay, albeit a symbolic one, for its strategy of confrontation (with the EU) and delay (with the IAEA). It also strengthens the credibility of an American/EU sanctions threat by providing multi-lateral cover to the assertion that Iran is still not in compliance with its NPT obligations.

Meanwhile, for the first time Iran allowed IAEA inspectors to visit its advanced centrifuge laboratory, where it is developing a new generation of more dependable enrichment technology. The visit is the first of a series of outstanding compliance issues that Iran has promised to resolve with the IAEA within the next four weeks. In the past Tehran has used Security Council sanctions as an excuse to cease cooperating with the IAEA. Should it adopt the same approach this time, look for a strong push from Washington (with a major assist from Paris) for a US-EU round of sanctions. That could be determinant, since the actual sanctions to be included in the UN resolution will have little coercive effect. The risk is that such a push could threaten the fragile support of Russia and China at the UN.

Ironically, Iran has been using the NIE as proof of the civilian nature of its program, instead of fully satisfying the IAEA's inspection regime and thereby removing the legal basis for sanctions. Given that the West was able to get this round of sanctions in spite of the NIE, that strategy might prove to be shortsighted.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Morning News Roundup

Top of the news and stories of interest from the American and global press:

That's it for this morning.

Posted by Judah in:  Morning News Roundup   

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Happy Belated Birthday

I guess I'm supposed to remember these sorts of things, but Sunday, January 20 marked the one-year anniversary of Headline Junky. In that time, I wrote 1089 posts and linked to 2578 news and blog articles in the sidebar. (That's not counting some articles that were only linked to in posts and others that I read without linking to.) The benefit to me in terms of my awareness and understanding of global developments has been clear. I hope it's been of some use to you all, too.

Thanks for supporting the site. Hopefully there will be even more of you this time next year.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Promissory Notes Of Hope

I just watched Barack Obama's speech/sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and was not at all surprised, given his enormous oratorical skills, to find that it lives up to its billing. It's an inspirational and impressive speech, and the way he articulates and contextualizes his vision of hope as an active force for change is effective.

I found his arguments for unity less compelling, since I think what he's talking about is more solidarity than unity. Progress has always been a polarizing proposition, as most of the examples he cites to illustrate it (the American Revolution, abolitionism, the Civil Rights movement) demonstrate. The key is not to get unanimity or consensus but a solid majority. Ronald Reagan, for instance was a very polarizing figure. That didn't keep him from winning 60% of the popular vote in 1984, which is what makes it hard to call him divisive.

Three things occurred to me, having watched the video. First, the white-haired gentleman with the kente-cloth stole sitting behind the pulpit above Obama's right shoulder is Dr. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of Obama's church, Trinity UCC. Wright, you'll recall, was asked by the Obama campaign not to attend Obama's speech announcing his candidacy last year. So the fact that he was in attendance at Ebenezer so soon after the recent publicity over Obama's ties to him strikes me as significant.

Second, there were a couple of moments in Obama's speech that I found symbolically awkward. The first came when he began his litany of "hope moments" from American history with the American Revolution. It seemed like you could almost feel the enthusiasm in the pews dip for the second or two it took him to hurry on to the abolitionists (not surprising given how many of the patriots that took on the British Empire were slaveholders).

The second was at the very end, when a story used to illustrate the unity driving his campaign culminated in a young white campaign worker inspiring an elderly black man to rediscover the fight he had left in him. Something about the "single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man", as Obama put it, struck me as tone deaf to the patronizing hint of paternalism in the story, to say nothing of our country's particularly charged sexual-racial history.

I wonder if the two moments reflect the difficulties that Obama is bound to encounter in tailoring his message to the various audiences of what seems like a decidedly less post-racial America with every week of this campaign (although I leave open the possibility that I'm paying too close attention and reading too much into both).

Finally, there was a noteworthy moment when, in telling his own story, Obama says, "I got in trouble when I was a teenager, did some things folks don't like to talk about..." Compare that to the language BET founder Bob Johnson used ten days ago, for which he was later forced to apologize: "...Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood -- and I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in the book..."

Now, granted, Johnson's remarks were objectionable, but this strikes me as similar to a dynamic that Matthew Yglesias already identified with regard to Obama's middle name. Namely, that his supporters don't hesitate to use his background and the impression it will make abroad as an appeal, while getting outraged by every mention made of it by his opponents. Yes, the attacks are cheap and unseemly, but as Matthew put it:

If he's going to get praised in these terms, he's going to get knocked in them, too. That's just how it is.

Obama seems to do a lot of talking (and writing) about the things he's done that "folks don't like to talk about". So he ought to have some responses ready when other people mention them.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Race In America   

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Pipeline Faultlines

In the latest development in the ongoing pipeline diplomacy roiling the Middle East and Europe, Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, announced that Iran was willing to supply gas for the EU's Nabucco pipeline project. Most significant about the announcement, which comes on the heels of two major Russian gas deals that strengthened Moscow's grip on European supply routes, is that Mottaki made specific mention of Europe's desire to diversify its gas sources.

Obviously, the offer must be understood principally in the context of the ongoing nuclear standoff, as an Iranian attempt to weaken European opposition to its uranium enrichment program and create a wedge between Washington and its European allies. In light of today's announcement about the agreement reached over a third round of UN sanctions, that's unlikely to happen. Even if the sanctions were watered down to bring Russia and China on board, they are symbolically extremely significant.

But the offer also coincides with Tehran's lingering and increasingly bitter dispute over a gas delivery contract with Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan has shut down its pipeline to Iran citing technical problems, but most observers believe the move, coming in the midst of a particularly cold Iranian winter, is a bareknuckled attempt to renegotiate the contract to reflect the higher price (roughly double) that Moscow recently agreed to pay for Turkmenistan's supplies.

If the Iranian offer signals a potential faultline in the Iran-Russian tactical alliance, it's one worth pursuing. While sitting on the second largest known natural gas reserves (after Russia), Iran would need enormous investment to develop its extraction and delivery capacities, which explains its vulnerability to Turkmenistan's tactics.

So far, the Russians have continued to supply the nuclear fuel to the Bushehr reactor, and their reticence has contributed to watering down the latest round of UN sanctions. But Moscow did sign on, and its efforts to solidify its energy position have come at the expense of Iran's domestic supplies. In response, Iran seems to be signalling that its allegiance is not set in stone, and that for the time being all its alignments are tactical rather than strategic in nature.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   International Relations   Iran   

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Dept. Of Shameless Plugs

I've got a very brief English-language theatre review of a production of Racine's "Berenice", directed by Lambert Wilson, up on a Paris website. It should be an ongoing gig, so if you know anyone in Paris, send them over.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Morning News Roundup

Top of the news and stories of interest from the American and global press:

That's it for this morning.

Posted by Judah in:  Morning News Roundup   

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Balancing Resolve With Restraint

In a monograph for the Army War College, Nobel prize-winning economist Roger Myerson uses game theory to explain why, contrary to the assumptions of the Bush administration's doctrine of unilateralism, reinforcing multilateral institutions and subsequently respecting the restraints they place on American use of force reinforces the effectiveness of American deterrence. A policy balancing resolve (the willingness to respond to aggression) with restraint (the willingness to accept limits on the use of force) provides the necessary disincentives to aggression while maintaining the incentives for cooperation. If, on the other hand, a country knows it's going to catch hell whether it cooperates with the US or not, it has no incentive to cooperate.

The key, according to Myerson, is a reliable reputation for reasonable restraint among the international community. Our promises of restraint must not only be as clearly communicated as our threats of military action, they need to be as credible as well:

Thus, if we want our application of military force to deter our potential adversaries, rather than stimulate them to more militant reactions against us, then we should make sure that the limits of our forceful actions are clear to any potential adversaries. We need a reputation for responding forcefully against aggression, but we also need a reputation for restraining our responses within clear limits that depend in a generally recognized way on the nature of the provocation. These limits must be clear to our potential adversaries, who must be able to verify that we are adhering to the limits of our deterrent strategy, because it is they whom we are trying to influence and deter. (p. 21)

In the light of Myerson's analysis, the idea that America must at times submit its use of force to the judgment of the international arena takes on a central evaluative function:

When Americans judge our leaders for effectiveness in foreign policy, the central question should be how our policy is perceived by the foreigners whom we want to influence and deter. Letting these foreigners judge our reputation for adhering to our deterrent strategy can help us to guarantee its credibility. So a policy of submitting American military actions to international judgment and restraint can actually make America more secure. (p. 23)

Myerson's theoretical models reinforce a recurring sentiment in foreign policy circles that American foreign policy is in need of a corrective period of restraint. It's also comforting to know that the multi-lateral system works on a theoretical level to deter conflict in an increasingly multi-polar world. With any luck the Bush doctrine will soon be squarely behind us, and the suggestion that we should be formulating our deterrent policy based at least in part on the perceptions of those we're trying to deter will no longer be portrayed as a lack of resolve, but as an abundance of wisdom.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

One Strike You're Out

This is pretty serious stuff. Five senior Western military strategists, each of them a former Chief of Staff and some of them former high-ranking NATO commanders, just submitted a report that will be discussed at the upcoming NATO summit this April arguing that the risk of nuclear proliferation is "imminent", that as a result the West must seriously contemplate the possibility of limited nuclear exchanges, and that the option of a nuclear first strike should not be removed from the "quiver of escalation". Beyond that, they call for overhauling NATO's decision-making procedure, eliminating consensus and national veto and replacing it with a majority rules arrangement, in order to facilitate rapid response.

It's hard to ignore the fact that the announcement of the report comes on the heels of the Russian Chief of Staff's reiteration yesterday of Russia's longstanding first strike policy. But more than anything, the report represents an acknowledgement that the rules of the deterrent game have been scrambled and that from here on out we'd better be willing to scrap because chances are we're going to have to.

That's a pretty frightening scenario when you consider the impact of even a limited nuclear exchange on a second-rate power, and then consider the role failed states play in the current proliferation outlook. In other words, we're entering into a period where the only response left doesn't only fail to solve the problem, it exacerbates it. As I said at the outset, pretty serious stuff.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Late Morning News Roundup

Top of the news and stories of interest from the American and global press:

More updating this evening.

Posted by Judah in:  Morning News Roundup   

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Iraq War Republicans

It's worth clarifying, because I don't think Barack Obama has really formulated it this way yet: He might have made mention of Ronald Reagan the other day, but he was actually talking about America. But while he's right when he says that the mood of America allowed Ronald Reagan to capture the famous Reagan Democrat votes, he keeps leaving two things out.

First, Ronald Reagan did not change the political landscape of America by working across party lines. He did it by getting voters who traditionaly identified as Democrats to not only vote Republican, but to identify as Republican, as least temporarily. Specifically, he appealed to blue collar Democrats' social conservatism, to middle class Democrats' fiscal conservatism, and to both groups' susceptibility to a reinvigorated American triumphalism. If Obama really wants to change the political landscape of America in the way that Reagan did, he needs to claim the political space on the other side of the center line. But first he needs to identify exactly who he means to win over and how.

Which brings me to the second point Obama keeps leaving out. The Reagan Democrats were driven to change party allegiances not just by an intangible national mood. They were driven by a Democratic Party in which they had lost faith and by which they felt abandoned. I wrote about this three times back in Novemeber, (here, here, and here), because it seemed at the time like the GOP was headed for a meltdown. And if Mike Huckabee ends up winning the nomination, I think the logic of an "Obama Republicans" groundswell still holds.

But the overwhelming factor in the GOP's self-examination, at least as I saw it at the time, was the Iraq War. It's what led Republicans like Wesley Clark and Jim Webb to run as Democrats in 2004 and 2006, and I think they were early adapters for a much broader movement that might have followed in 2008. But Iraq, for the time being, has quieted down. Which suddenly makes the GOP -- especially one led by John McCain or Mitt Romney -- a less threatening proposition, especially to Republicans most susceptible to an Obama appeal (ie. the sane ones).

So while I understand why Obama is using the Reagan analogy, I'm no longer sure it will be borne out by the electoral dynamics come November.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Narrower Than Zero

The LA Times has a sadly comic article on how the Bush administration is now narrowing its "foreign policy horizons" for its last year in office. Apparently, instead of magically solving all of the problems he either created or ignored, President Bush has decided it might just be better to play out the clock and let someone with more competence handle them come 2009.

One administration official claimed that they're still aiming high, but aded, "What you can do versus what you end up doing is always different." In this case, they can't do much and will end up doing less. But I guess that's what you get when you elect a guy president whose only travel abroad was a beer run into Tijuana.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Pipeline Diplomacy, Redux

This little item got buried over the weekend, but it's a pretty significant development. Russia just signed a major pipeline contract with Bulgaria which, combined with the imminent deal giving Russia a controlling interest in Serbia's largest gas and oil company, tightens Russia's grip on the Balkans' energy supply. Russia will now be able to pipe gas directly to the European market, bypassing Turkey as a transit point altogether.

Meanwhile, the EU's Nabucco project, whereby gas from Azerbaijan and Iran would be transitted through Turkey to the continent, has been bogged down by disputes over financing, transit routes, and the Iran nuclear standoff. With Russia having already locked down Turkmenistan's entire annual gas production and already in possession of the major supply lines, any hope for diversified European gas sources just grew much slimmer.

How Turkey reacts to these developments will be very significant. They've been stalling on a deal to develop Iran's gas reserves in order to entertain the US' offers of becoming a regional energy hub for Iraqi and Azerbaijan gas and oil reserves. The problem is that Iraq is far from stabilized, and so far no acceptable route has been found for the Azerbaijan supplies. Should Turkey decide that one tactical energy alliance in hand is better than two in the bush, it could have a dramatic impact on the region's strategic realignment.

And history, when it gets around to the Iraq War, may very well decide that while Bush and the neocons were emptying the American treasury to conquer the last of the dwindling oil reserves, Putin and the mullahs were turning a profit off of locking down the gas supplies.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Russia   Turkey   

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Monday, January 21, 2008

The Former Ex-President

I took the weekend off to rest my eyes and spend some quality time with my son. Which means I just spent quite a bit of time catching up on my regular blog reading. (Apparently one of the consequences of paid bloggers is that there's no such thing as a weekend anymore.)

And the first thing that occurred to me upon seeing that Bill Clinton is running for president again is that I'd experienced a Newhart ending. But while starting over in 1996 would be the equivalent of hitting the trifecta (no Monica, no W., and no 9/11), the fact is that it's still 2008. And in 2008, Bill Clinton's campaigning looks like a triple loser: bad for Hillary, bad for Obama, and bad for the Democratic Party.

I say looks like, because it really isn't. The only person Bill Clinton's campaigning is bad for is Bill Clinton. Unlike a lot of people criticizing him these days, I was never a very big fan of his while he was president. But I, like most people, make an enormous allowance for former presidents. (Hell, I had to fight off a round of revisionist emotion that welled up when Richard Nixon died.) But Clinton's attack dog campaigning for Hillary, while perfectly understandable in political terms, are incompatible with his stature as a statesman. Which means that he has, in effect, forfeited his former president status.

But this is about Bill, not Hillary. Whatever impact his negative campaigning has on her candidacy (the advantages will be short term, the disadvantages long term), it doesn't diminish her strengths as a candidate. People who are criticizing her because she's allowing him to do it are forgetting that a large part of her sales pitch is that she gets the job done. If it wins, it stays in the game. That's how she's promised to beat the Republicans. And that's how she's promised to govern.

Obama, on the other hand, has promised that his emphasis on unity can successfully defeat this kind of campaigning. That's how he's promised to beat the Republicans. And that's how he's promised to govern. The rest of the primary campaign will be a proving ground for each candidate's promise. And the winner will have been borne out by the result.

Meanwhile, the rest of us need to keep our cool, because the Deomcratic Party isn't going to fracture. There will be some bandages to be applied and some very sore ribs come the summer, but nothing a few promised cabinet positions won't heal.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Blogging The Louvre

Today I set out for the Louvre with the mud of the French countryside on my boots leftover from a Sunday afternoon outing to Chevreuse. If at first it seems like an affront (to the museum, to the royal palace), I quickly think of it as an offering to the spirit of the French kings that haunt the halls: a bit of earth to remind them of their lost kingdom.

I've also got a mission. Last night I saw a performance of "Berenice" by Jean Racine, with Carole Bouquet in the lead role, and Lambert Wilson both playing Titus and directing. In Racine's tragedy, Titus, on the verge of being named emperor by the Roman Senate, is forced to choose between his passion for the Jewish queen Berenice and his ambition (Roman law forbids a foreign-born emperess). He chooses ambition. Now I'm curious to see how the same story might play out on a canvas. It strikes me as a primitive form of multimedia hyperlinks.

But a docent confirms what an internet search had already suggested. There are no canvases of Berenice and Titus. I wander through the French painting wing until I stumble on "The Painting of the Month": Mercury Orders Aeneis to Abandon Dido. I never read the Aeneid, so the story is unfamiliar to me. But the parallels are there and the canvas, hanging alone in a small alcove off a passage, is a beautiful one, so I take a seat.

Aeneis sits on a chair, a child servant lacing his sandals, while Dido reclines naked on the bed beside him. Her expression is one of resignation, youthful but somehow not innocent or naive. As if she understands her status as object of desire, a footnote to the larger narrative of Aeneis' destiny. Berenice disappeared from the historical record after Titus' death, and it seems safe to assume, given the nature of Western mythology, that the same will be Dido's fate. From her expression and her languid posture it's clear, too, that she understands her essential failure. She has offered her being, her self. And it was not enough.

Clearly, the unmade bed he's rising from is their lovers' bed. She lies in it, still naked, a living echo of the passion they've shared, while he is present but already gone, his eyes directed towards Mercury, messenger of the Gods: to his destiny, to his glory. It's a moment we've all lived, if we've lived: the interior farewell that precedes the last goodbye. It's a moment of brutal rejection, a declaration that all that the other has to offer is not enough. That the unknown offering in destiny's outstretched hand is more tempting than all that is known and cherished in the soon-to-be-abandoned lover.

The brutality of the moment is magnified in the canvas by the public nature of the scene. The servant lacing Aeneis sandal, two old maidservants huddled in the background gossiping, the courtyard in the distance representing the public square and community, and the Gods all witness Dido's humiliation.

From Dido's attitude and expression, I wonder if Aeneis has left her carrying their child. At least, it occurs to me, the deadbeat dads of antiquity abandoned their families to accomplish heroic deeds. What began as a pursuit of glory has, in modern times, devolved into a shirking of responsibility.

But were the ancients really all that glorious? Titus, I learn once back at my desk, was a violent and lethal chief of his father Vespasian's "secret police" (the Praetorian Guards), a Putin-esque figure at best, an Uday Hussein type at worst. Nicolas Sarkozy, whose name came up last night after the theatre performance, is more a child in a toystore than a hero in search of glory. But is glory even possible in the age of google, when all of a man's shortcomings are stored in a database for instant recall?

The colors of the painting are evidence of its recent restoration. The vibrant pastels of Mercury's rose tunic, the servant's peach shawl, Aeneis' blue armor almost leap out from the canvas. Aeneis' pink and ruddy skin contrasts sharply to that of Dido, pale and porcelain. Outside, through the window, the sky bleeds grey. It's barely dawn; he'll be gone before the light.

I wonder if she'll rise and carry on as if nothing has happened? Or lie in bed all day long, wondering where she went wrong?

Image of Mercure ordonne à Enee d'abandonner Didon. Orazio Samacchini (1532-1577). Richelieu Wing, 2nd floor, French painters, Room 17.

Posted by Judah in:  Blogging The Louvre   

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Morning News Roundup

Top of the news and stories of interest from the American and global press:

That's it for this morning.

Posted by Judah in:  Morning News Roundup   

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Quote Of The Day

"All I know is whatever personality he had when he had the football was the one I liked."

-- Former University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley on Herschel Walker's revelation that he has multiple personality disorder.

Posted by Judah in:  Quote Of The Day   

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Friday, January 18, 2008

The New Black

Last week I mentioned that Baitullah Mahsud is one Taliban worth watching. Over the past year, he's increasingly shown up on the South Waziristan scouting report radar, but a steady proliferation of recent articles about him seemed to strongly suggest that he was about to have something of a breakout season. That suspicion is only reinforced by the news that the CIA has now concurred with the Pakistani government and identified Mahsud as the prime suspect in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

In addition to his stellar rise through the Taliban ranks and his reported links to people reportedly linked to Al Qaeda, Mahsud has something else to recommend him to take over the role of chief terrorist bogeyman and principle fallguy for all things nefarious. Namely that he shuns publicity and has almost never been seen in public. This guy is like the Clear of badguys: He only shows up in the statistics.

With Osama Bin Laden's marquee value largely tarnished by six years of spotty video production values and his ability to strike fear into the hearts of the nation on the wane, I think Mahsud's time has come.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Pakistan   

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Ain't Going Nowhere

If you've had trouble accessing the site, it's because despite having paid to re-register the domain name two weeks ago, despite having confirmed a week ago that the payment had been recorded and there would be no disruption of service, the domain name was not correctly re-registered. Leading to a moment of cold panic that I'd lost a trademark I've spent a year developing.

But miracle of miracles, Skype actually held for the entire time it took to straighten things out. The domain has been correctly re-registered, and now it's just a matter of time before it re-propagates. Of course, that means that you'll probably be reading this a few days from now. But the worst has been avoided.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Fair Tax

It took a while of reading about Mike Huckabee's 30% sales tax, which he dubs the Fair Tax, before it occurred to me that here in France, we pay 20% sales tax on goods and services (basic foodstuffs are taxed at a 5.5% rate). The main difference between the French system and Huckabee's is that here, that's in addition to a pretty stiffly progressive income tax that tops off at 40%. And that's in addition to a pretty stiff Social Security tax. Socialized medicine does have its costs.

Posted by Judah in:  Domestic Policy   La France Politique   Politics   

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Friday, January 18, 2008

The End Of Deterrence

Recently reports surfaced that Pakistan had used huge chunks of American cash grants to procure military hardware better suited to a conventional conflict with India than to the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations the money had been earmarked for. The obvious conclusion was that as long as Pakistan feels more threatened by India than it does by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the problem on the Afghan border will remain a low priority in Islamabad. Another obvious conclusion was that a coherent American policy in the region would be to encourage to the greatest degree possible a detente between the two nuclear-armed countries, thereby progressively freeing Pakistan up to concentrate on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency.

Instead, Lockheed Martin is in discussions with New Delhi to help the Indians polish off their homegrown ballistic missile defense system. The system, once perfected, would effectively counter the threat of both Pakistan's and China's strategic forces, destabilizing what's already a precarious regional balance of power and possibly provoking a nuclear weapons build-up. Of course, America could not very credibly try to dissuade India from developing its own missile defense system, given our own insistence on dismantling the ABM regime. But we shouldn't be helping them put the finishing touches on it either.

The issue brings into focus one of the less-covered developments of the past seven years. The attacks of 9/11 demonstrated how non-state actors could use assymetric tactics to render conventional deterrence useless. Simultaneously, the Bush administration has worked tirelessly to render conventional deterrence between state actors obsolete. The net result is a world in which the threat environment has dramatically proliferated and diversified, and the disincentives to using force have been dramatically reduced. Either one would be alarming. The two together are potentially catastrophic.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   India   Pakistan   

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Friday, January 18, 2008

French Touch

Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias have both flagged the news that France has just signed an agreement with the UAE to establish a permanent military base just across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran. Kevin cites Marc Lynch, who writes:

Early spin has suggested that this will allow France to better cooperate with the US against Iran, but this seems shortsighted. A long-term French strategic position in the Gulf challenges American exclusivity, and potentially undermines the fundamental architecture of the hegemonic American position in the Gulf. (Link included from original.)

Matthew suggests that the latter might be a good thing, in that it will re-balance the dysfunctional relationship between American military commitments and European strategic interests.

The fact is, there's a bit of all three going on. The base in question is for the moment largely symbolic given its limited size and the fact that it won't be operational for a year at least. But its location at the bottleneck of the Strait of Hormuz and very close to Iran does in fact constitute a pressure point on Tehran. That France happens to be the most forceful and most credible advocate right now for preventing Iran from developing a nuclear fuel enrichment capacity is significant. Their position is not so much in alignment with ours on Iran so much as it is an ideal version of what ours should have been from the start: Clear-sighted, non-hysterical, with firm demands and rewarding incentives.

On the other hand, as I argued on the very first day of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency, he has a very ambitious vision for France's role in the world, and he's pretty savvy about getting what he wants. As for the French presence he's establishing, it's not limited to the military and it's not limited to the Gulf. Sarkozy has been using a nuclear energy foreign policy to establish France's strategic position throughout the Arab world. In the eight months since he took office, he has already signed civil nuclear cooperation agreements with Morocco, Libya, Algeria, and the UAE, while offering assistance to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Significantly, this is in direct opposition to the American line of discouraging the proliferation of civil nuclear capacity in the Middle East, especially in the circumstances now surrounding the Iranian standoff.

So while Matthew is correct in suggesting that Europe in general and France in particular having the capacity to put their military money where their mouth is will balance the trans-Atlantic relationship, that will in effect be a development that lessens America's strategic leverage in the world. In other words, good-by to the world's reluctant policeman, hello to the long-announced French vision of the multi-polar world. This isn't going to happen overnight, but it is definitely the way Sarkozy would like to see things develop.

That it's ineluctable does not necessarily mean that it will be advantageous to the US. The alternative, however, of an America that serves as the military firewall to all the world's brushfires, is no longer sustainable.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Foreign Policy   La France Politique   The Middle East   

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Morning News Roundup

Top of the news and stories of interest from the American and global press:

A quick word on sourcing. I try not to cite official news organs or local versions of Fox News (ie. IRNA & Press TV from Iran) unless it involves an item of local or non-partisan interest. In the event of a spin piece (ie. Foreign Ministry announcements, etc.), if I can't find a more objective outlet for the story, I'll tend to pass. Also, when I come across something in the French press, I try to find an English-language substitute.

That's it for today.

Posted by Judah in:  Morning News Roundup   

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Evenhanded

It's reassuring to see that Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is as serious about instances of partisan pulpit endorsements when it comes to Democratic candidates as it is for Republicans. Two days ago, it asked the IRS to investigate a Las Vegas church whose pastor introduced a surprise appearance by Barack Obama by announcing his intention to vote for him.

What will be worth keeping an eye on, especially if Obama eventually wins the nomination, is whether the IRS is as evenhanded in its enforcement as AU is in its watchdog efforts.

Update: Melissa Rogers has a very informative discussion of partisan pulpits with regard to a Wisconsin pastor who took out a full page ad in the WSJ basically challenging the IRS to come and get him. Definitely worth a read if you're interested in the freedom of speech and religious practice issues at stake in the IRS' enforcement of tax-exempt status.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Friday, January 18, 2008

The Sarko Show

Yesterday I was the guest of an invitee to Elysee Palace for Nicolas Sarkozy's speech to "les Forces vive de la France". I wrote it up as a guest post over at Art Goldhammer's blog, French Politics. If you're interested in what the Sarko Show looks like from the live studio audience, take a look.

Posted by Judah in:  La France Politique   

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Morning News Roundup

Top of the news and stories of interest from the American and global press:

Slightly abridged. Gotta run.

Posted by Judah in:  Morning News Roundup   

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Just Wondering

Question: Is the headline "Giuliani Tries for a Hail Mary in Florida" an innocent reference to football, or a subtle attempt to call attention to his Catholic faith?

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Process vs. Method

The GAO basically confirmed what I'd suggested last night. The impact of unilateral American sanctions against Iran is questionable at best. Meanwhile Iran has racked up $20 billion in energy contracts with foreign firms since 2003. You do the math.

The reason Iran is maintaining such an intransigent posture on uranium enrichment is that they're convinced they can get away with it. And that's a direct consequence of the Iran NIE report. Take that report away and Tehran's recurring delay tactics with the IAEA, combined with its confrontational negotiating stance with the EU, would almost certainly have provoked a third round of UN sanctions, and perhaps even meaningful ones at that.

There's a lot of good to be said about the Iran NIE, not least of which being that it was an accurate reflection of the US intelligence community's thinking on Iran's nuclear program, as opposed to a cooked up report meant to support an already decided upon policy. That does not necessarily make it the truth, but it is a victory of process over cynicism.

But as recent comments by President Bush made clear, it's done nothing to change the Bush administration's opinion of the Iranian nuclear program, and had only a minor impact on the tone of American rhetoric. By torpedoeing any hopes for further UN sanctions, it's also made it more likely that one or both of the worst case scenarios (as Nicolas Sarkozy put it, an Iranian bomb or the bombardment of Iran) will wind up occurring.

Process is good. But sometimes a bit of method helps, too.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Not So Morning News Roundup

Very sorry, but I was bit busy this morning. I'll try to get some links up later today.

Posted by Judah in:  Morning News Roundup   

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Will To Power

Something to remember regarding the unseemly innuendo about Barack Obama that's been spread by Clinton surrogates and Richard Cohen this past week, as well as some of the coded language that's been used to accentuate his race. These are tactics that we knew would be used. We thought it would be a Republican 527 slime outfit using them, but we all knew they would come up. And from the start, Obama's candidacy was based upon, among other things, the assurance that he could handle them.

There's no justice to the fact that he has to. It's actually a pretty depressing hangover following the "post-racial America" euphoria of his victory in Iowa. But it's the reality of electoral politics as things stand today. If this can derail his campaign for the Democratic nomination, then no matter how inspiring he is, no matter how legitimate a candidate he is, he simply stood no chance of winning the general election.

So far the endorsements have continued to come in, and by all appearances he should do well enough in South Carolina and Nevada to legitimize his campaign for the longrun, which suggests that he can, in fact, deliver on his promise. If he does do well in those two states, it will be a major boost to his electability argument. And if he goes on to win the nomination, this will prove to be the Nietzschean stretch of the campaign that, in not destroying him, made him stronger.

In the meantime, I'll be pretty happy when my posts on Obama in particular and the Democratic campaign in general can be archived solely under "Politics", without the "Race in America" tag behind it.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Race In America   

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Strait Skinny, Redux

To follow up on a post from yesterday, I found this comment regarding transit passage and the UNCLOS at Eagle Speak:

When I used to teach this to surface officers in the pre-command course (PCO) the points I stressed were "...continuous and expeditious transit..." and "...normal modes..." of operations. Under the later condition radars and sonars may be operated. Moreover, since warships as extensions of US territory have the inherent right of self defense in accordance with the UN Charter guns may be manned and "destructive fire" can be justified if under attack. As for the helicopter it was always my practice to have one airborne during transits of crowded waterways like the SOH as an extension of my shipboard sensors and to provide for safe navigation. The only restriction is that it must be launched and recovered in international waters (except in cases of emergency) and that its passage must be continuous and expeditious as well.

Dr. Arasbiabi has a poor understanding of both naval operations and American history. The Iranians certainly have a right to identify warships passing through the SOH (his term "inspect" connotes something entirely different to me) but they may not impede their passage. "Freedom of the seas" has been a bedrock principle of American foreign policy since our Republic's earliest days.

So maybe we are back to provocative episodes with a CB prankster grafted on top.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Sanctions vs. Incentives

In the process of digging around for something to tie a few Iran-based stories together, I actually got around to reading the UN sanctions resolution to see just what kinds of economic activities had been prohibited. Not much, it turns out. Anything relating to uranium enrichment is off the table, as are Iranian arms exports. A handful of nuclear-related organizations got blacklisted and had their foreign assets frozen, and a number of high-ranking officials involved with the nuclear program were forbidden to travel abroad. (There's a summary of the sanctions here.) But besides that, it's hard to see how they're supposed to put the squeeze on Tehran.

So it's no wonder that the Bush administration has resorted to unilateral sanctions (most notably a banking blacklist that's gotten some results but is gradually being weakened), as well as exerting bi-lateral pressure in order to isolate Tehran economically. It's also no wonder, given Iran's enormous gas and oil reserves, that for every one step forward on the isolation front, there's three steps back. (Step one, step two, step three.)

The biggest surprise I got from reading the UN resolution, in fact, is the pretty generous package of incentives codified into the resolution's 2nd Annex titled "Elements of a long-term agreement" (scroll about halfway down the link), all in return for Iran quite simply suspending its uranium enrichment activity, submitting to the Additonal Protocol it has already signed with the IAEA, and satisfying all of the IAEA's outstanding concerns about the history of its program (which allows the IAEA to account for material and verify that nothing's been diverted towards military uses).

It's a pretty comprehensive incentive package, which makes Iran's adamant refusal to suspend its enrichment program while at the same time refusing to comply with its obligations under the NPT (which would legitimize its right to the nuclear fuel enrichment cycle) all the more incomprehensible. One of the reasons for their high-risk posture is obviously that they feel pretty confident they can get away with it. But if the goal is really just to increase its domestic energy supply (despite its massive reserves, Iran has an underdeveloped domestic energy sector), it seems like a less confrontational stance would accomplish the goal more quickly and with more longterm stability.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Sub In Subprime

A few days ago Josh Marshall wondered whether he should be unnerved about the fact that foreign governments (read: sovereign investment funds) were snatching up large equity positions in cash-strapped American financial services companies. I think it's more unnerving when the foreign governments decide that it's just not worth the risk anymore:

China's government has apparently squashed a multibillion-dollar investment in Citigroup Inc. by state-owned China Development Bank. The move suggests there is discord in Beijing over how best to deploy China's money pile. A few previous China investments like these have fared poorly so far financially.

These guys have got a pretty big incentive to keep the dollar from bottoming out. The question is whether there's anything they can do about it.

Posted by Judah in:  China   Markets & Finance   

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Wooing Ankara

I once wondered whether the loss of Turkey might end up being the worst strategic outcome of the Iraq War. It looks like that was a bit premature, as American-Turkish relations have thawed out considerably in the aftermath of last November's meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Erdogan. A great deal of that has to do with the operational agreement they reached to help Turkey target the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan.

But if the PKK is the high profile issue that drove the headlines, the subtext of this rapprochement is the "Turkey-USA-Iraq trilateral energy working group", a seriously underreported initiative on the part of the Bush administration to win back Ankara's goodwill. Basically it amounts to an attempt to pry Turkey away from its flirtation with the Russian-Iranian energy-based tactical alliance with the promise of a central role in the development and distribution of Iraqi oil and gas reserves. It's also part of a larger package dating back to last March by which Turkey would become a regional energy hub connecting the European gas grid with Eurasian supplies, and making Turkey the point of transit for 6-7% of the world's daily oil consumption by 2012.

But it gets more interesting. Turkey has long had plans for developing a domestic nuclear energy program. Apparently there are now discussions in the works for turning it into a regional uranium enrichment hub. A meeting this Friday in Instanbul on the matter will be attended by representatives of the IAEA, the US, Russia, France and the UK.

Of course, a lot of the plan depends on whether Turkey and the US manage to address the PKK issue without alienating the Kurds, as well as on whether the US can keep Iraq from falling apart. But all in all it's a deal that ought to keep Ankara happy.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Turkey   

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Downtown Beirut

A bombing targetting American embassy personnel in Beirut is pretty bad news. One that takes place in the context of a series of Syrian-linked bombings dating back a couple years is even worse. And when it all goes down with the country's lingering presidential stalemate as the backdrop, well, then things look pretty bad.

People have been warning about the danger that the presidential standoff poses for a while now. In essence, it represents the potential failure of the Lebanese power-sharing arrangement that put an end to the decades-long Civil War. But with the exception of the assassination of the Lebanese Army's second-in-command (admittedly a pretty big exception), there hasn't been very much violence.

Hopefully that won't change, but the idea of declaring open season on American embassy personnel seems pretty brazen. Keep your eyes on who claims responsibility for this attack. If it's an Islamic extremist group like the one that tried to take over a Palestinian refugee camp this past summer, this will probably blow over. But if there's any link to a pro-Syrian group, all hell could break loose.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Morning News Roundup

Top of the news and stories of interest from the American and global press:

That's it for this morning.

Posted by Judah in:  Morning News Roundup   

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

When Farrakhan Is Short For Malcolm

Last night I said that Barack Obama would definitely be asked about his opinion on Malcolm X, and that his answer would be potentially risky for his candidacy. The reason I was so sure, which I didn't mention in the post, is Obama's church, Trinity UCC, which self-identifies as Afro-centric. (Here's what I wrote about it last February after a hatchet job first appeared in Investor's Business Daily.)

This morning, Roger Cohen gets us halfway there. Louis Farrakhan is admittedly a much less ambiguous figure than Malcolm X, who after all has appeared on a US postage stamp. But this storm is less about historical accuracy and more about codewords like Afro-centrism and black nationalism, and it's a storm that's already brewing (scroll down on the link). Hopefully Obama's got his answers ready.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Race In America   

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Monday, January 14, 2008

The Strait Skinny

Kaveh Afrasiabi makes the claim that far from being a case of Iranian provocation, the recent incident in the Strait of Hormuz was actually a case of the American vessels invoking the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea on the one hand, while violating it on the other:

According to Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgiff, the US ships were "five kilometers outside Iranian territorial waters". Yet, this is disputed by another dispatch from the US ships that states, "I am engaged in transit passage in accordance with international law."

Given that the approximately three-kilometer-wide inbound traffic lane in the Strait of Hormuz is within Iran's territorial water, the US Navy's invocation of "transit passage" harking back to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, (UNCLOS) is hardly surprising.

Among the subsequent violations that Afrasiabi identifies, the videotape released by the Pentagon showed an American helicopter hovering over the convoy, despite the fact that the launching of aircraft is expressly forbidden during transit passage. The US has also been engaged in sonar soundings in the Strait, which under the terms of the Convention requires the consent of the states bordering the passage. Furthermore, the use of force against the states bordering the passage is also forbidden, making the firing of warning shots against Iranian vessels technically illegal as well, especially if the Iranian vessels are engaged in enforcing Tehran's sovereign rights within its territorial waters under the terms of the Convention.

Now the US is technically not a signatory to the UNCLOS. But if what Afrasiabi is maintaining is true, what the US Navy has described as a pattern of provocation on the part of Iran is in fact an American attempt to enjoy the protections of the Convention while not respecting its obligations. And the Iranian response becomes more understandable.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Monday, January 14, 2008

The X Factor

I think Ezra Klein's onto something when he talks about the impact, rather than the intentions behind, the recent flurry of racial innuendo coming from Clinton surrogates:

If Obama has to spend a lot of time talking about race, it's hard for him to be the post-racial candidate. If he has to spend a lot of time on divisive topics, it's hard for him to make an appeal for unity. And if he gets thrown off message at this point in the campaign, it will be exceedingly hard for him to blunt Clinton's momentum. And, whether it's a coordinated strategy on the part of the Clintons or not, it's definitely what's happening.

As I noted here, though, I think this conversation was bound to come up right about now anyway, given that we're moving out of the lily-white phase of the primary season. But the Clinton camp does seem to be adding their fuel to the fire, and it's not farfetched to imagine that the basis of their calculation is that these kinds of media flurries cause tactical damage to her campaign (there's a lot of Clinton folks explaining away their comments lately), while they cause strategic damage to Obama's.

Ezra also beat me to the punch in mentioning Malcolm X for the first time in the context of this controversy, but he did so as a tongue in cheek reference to John Edwards. But if I were in the Obama campaign, I would be very seriously considering just how he responds when a reporter or debate moderator asks him his opinion of Malcolm X. It's a potential hand grenade because of the very different perception of Malcolm among black and white voters, and among older and younger voters. If he embraces or doesn't agressively distance himself, he risks alienating some white voters (see: angry black man). If he holds him at arm's length, he could very well alienate some black voters (see: not black enough).

No, I don't think any of the other candidates faces the same risk if asked this question, for obvious reasons. Yes, I think he's going to be asked it, and soon.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Race In America   

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Going Way Back

Something to remember about the escalating tensions over race and gender in the Democratic primary campaign is that all of these disputes go way back. In the early days of the Civil Rights movement, there was already disagreement between proponents of legislative reform and legal challenges on the one hand, and proponents of civil disobedience on the other, prompting Dr. Martin Luther King to write his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail". Later, there was no small amount of tension between largely white, middle class anti-war militants and the increasingly radicalized civil rights and black nationalist movement. The modern women's liberation movement was in part born out of the deep-rooted misogyny of the anti-war and Civil Rights movement, best illustrated by Stokely Carmichael's response to a presentation on the position of women in SNCC to the effect that "The only position for women in SNCC is prone". And finally, identity politics sprang in part from the experience of black, hispanic, working class and lesbian women who didn't identify with the goals set by the white, middle class leadership of second wave feminism.

As you can see, we've had all of these on display the past few days: Paglia vs. Steinem, MLK vs. LBJ, the historical primacy of a woman presidential candidacy vs. a black presidential candidacy. But contrary to how it's been portrayed, Hillary Clinton's statement that direct activists drive the discourse but need allies in government to actually effect change strikes me as an attempt to synthesize that tension into a practical formula, even if it amounts to an admittedly self-serving one.

Paradoxically, Obama was supposed to be the candidate to get us past the bitterness of the culture wars. Instead, the dynamics of the race (the electoral race, that is) seem to be pulling him inexorably back into the fray. But instead of the expected right-left dichotomy, this battle is an internecine feud. And it's one, as I said, that goes even further back than the faultlines emerging this year in the GOP coalition.

But it's also one that's less of an existential threat to the Party. There will be bitterness and disappointment like there is every four years. But I think the brief moment of Obama-inspired intoxication has worn off and everyone is realizing that what we've got is not a revival that will culminate in transcendence but a campaign that will culminate in a nominating convention. And come this summer, I'm confident that the rough spots of the campaign will be put aside, and the Party will rally behind its nominee.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Race In America   

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Baseless Base Claims

The more the Democratic primary campaign begins to take on the shape of the 1984 Mondale-Hart-Jackson contest, the more I've been thinking that in many ways Hillary Clinton is the political offspring of Geraldine Ferraro. That is, a woman whose historic candidacy is mitigated by the fact that she's a dynasty politician heavily wrapped up in Democratic machine politics.

By coincidence, it turns out that Ferraro just waded into the escalating dispute over the role of race in the campaign with perhaps the most asinine claim I've come across so far:

"As soon anybody from the Clinton campaign opens their mouth in a way that could make it seem as if they were talking about race, it will be distorted," Mrs. Ferraro said. "The spin will be put on it that they are talking about race. The Obama campaign is appealing to their base and their base is the African-American community. What they are trying to do is move voters from Clinton by distorting things. What have they got to lose?" (Emphasis added.)

Now I don't follow the war room point-counterpoint press releases, so I don't know for sure if the Obama campaign is trying to spin Clinton's statements. But given how much pains the Obama campaign has taken to avoid racial identity politics, given the difficulty he experienced early on gathering black endorsements, and given how well he's just done in two lily white states, to claim that his "base is the African-American community" is pretty offensive. It's also a not-so-veiled attempt to reduce him to the level of a "black politician" (ie. an interest group novelty candidate) as opposed to a statesman, in a way that no one tried to do with Bill Richardson, for instance.

That it comes on the same day that Obama picked up two endorsements from LA latino politicians makes it all the more ridiculous. Those endorsements are significant, by the way, for the way in which they overcome traditional Black-Latino animosity, which has been a hinted at but largely unspoken subtext to Obama's possibilities out west.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Blogging The Louvre

Before leaving my apartment, I consult the Louvre floor plan and decide on a large room on the first floor of the Richelieu wing labelled Renaissance. To get there I wander past a black monolith covered with cuneiform, an actual example of Hammurabi's Code. Then there are halls of sculptures in bronze, lead, marble and stone: Mercury lacing his sandles, Greek nymphs in various suggestive poses, enormous Egyptian temple guardians guarded themselves by photovoltaic alarm sensors, and ancient Sumerian totems that manage to capture movement and stillness depending on which angle you look at them from. I hesitate but decide to continue on, only to find that the long room I've imagined filled with lush Renaissance canvases is in fact a hall full of enormous faded tapestries depicting The Emporer Maximilien's hunting parties. Bummer.

I'm sure people who know their tapestries would probably find quite a bit to draw them in, but all I see are some worn out blankets, and I'm suddenly confronted with the experience of the museum as disappointment (for what I'd hoped to find), and regret (for not having stopped before one of the sculptures that had tempted me on my way here).

Knowing that I'll ultimately find my way back to the blankets before the year is out, I continue wandering until a series of pictographs alerts me that I'm drawing nearer and nearer to the ultimate destination of this yearlong journey, the Mona Lisa. Only two weeks into the start of the project, it's the equivalent of playing with fire. But there's nowhere to turn aside and so I continue onward, wondering how close I'll allow myself to come before heading back, when suddenly I'm stopped in my tracks by an enormous square room of massive dimensions. When I say massive, consider that among the canvases hanging from the wall, a couple of them, if laid out flat, would make nice-sized bedrooms. One of these in particular, hanging high above the first row of paintings, announces itself as today's subject. I sit on a bench a good thirty feet away, take off my coat and settle in.

In a palette that contrasts sharp foreground pastels against the muted grays and greens of the background, achieving the kind of vivid smokiness typical of American colonial art, a crowd seated behind a wooden barrier stretching from one end of the canvas to the other watches the last strides of a footrace. A young man in a pastel pink tunic seems to balance perilously on the toes of one foot, almost falling towards the finish line to our right. In his hand, he delicately holds onto a golden ball, his fingers splayed daintily. Several lengths behind him, a woman in a blue robe baring one shoulder swoops gracefully and powerfully in mid-stride, scooping another golden ball from the flat racetrack.

Paris, I think to myself, about to win Helen's love. I think of all that will follow, and wonder whether he would have followed through had he known himself.

But of course I've confused my Greek myths, not to mention my golden apples, as I realize when I check the title and painter: The Race of Hippomene and Atalanta. I only vaguely remember the storyline, something about a fiercely independent and athletic young woman who will only marry the suitor who can beat her in a footrace, knowing full well that no one can. And so Hippomene must use his guile to win her hand. He drops the golden apples, a gift of the Goddess Aphrodite, in Atalanta's path, who can't resist the temptation to gather them up, allowing Hippomene to win the race and her hand.

But I can't help but feel pessimistic about their chances, at least based on the painting. Hippomene's posture is effete and dainty compared to the sure-footed power coiled in Atalanta's lowered stride, the thickness of her shoulder and arm, and the poised strength of her arched back. The marriage seems more like a prison sentence for her than a union. Maybe that explains why her father, who in the myth was constantly pestering her to marry, in the painting has his hand raised and his arm outstretched, as if to stay his daughter's impulse to scoop up the golden apples, or perhaps even to hold Hippomene back from crossing the finish line. His face is strangely impassive, as if he, too, is unsure whether the outcome is cause for celebration or grief.

The rest of the onlookers seem similarly ambivalent. From atop a pedestal that seems to mark the finish line, a marble cherub looks down with a look of amusement. In the crowd, amid the surprise and consternation rippling through the crowd, the noble woman closest to the finish line encourages Hippomene forward with two outstretched arms.

But in the foreground, a woman of clearly more modest origins reclines with fatigue, a naked baby at her side, clearly foreshadowing the future that awaits Atalanta. And to the left of the canvas, still in the foreground, a young girl, tense and alert, regards Atalanta's impending defeat with alarm and disbelief. As if her own fate is somehow tied up with that of Atalanta, tripped up by a woman's love of all that glitters. Tripped up by the apple, too, of Eden (unknown to Atalanta, perhaps, but not to our painter), an apple that represents knowledge and sexuality, but also death and mortality.

Perhaps not coincidentally, across the room hangs a sombre canvas of laquered browns and umbres, Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking. She storms out from the shadows like a fury, the flame of her candle, her peach-colored robe and her wild shock of red hair all piercing the darkness. Her eyes are asleep yet somehow aflame with panic and hysterical guilt, and the tilt of her earrings conveys the lurch of her stride. Almost lost to the layers of paint and varnish that cast the background in deep shadow, a man, demonic, hunches threateningly over a young woman, whose corseted chest is in prominent display. There's a sexual violence to the scene, a menacing quality that reinforces the terror in Lady Macbeth's eye. But it's her own violence that she flees, the violence of an ambitious woman condemned to live in the shadows of a vacillating man.

I don't know how the myth of Atalanta turns out. But I leave the museum not feeling very hopeful about her chances.

Image of La Course d'Hippomede et Atalante (1765). Noel Halle (1711-1781, Paris). Oversized image here.
Resizable image
of Lady Macbeth Somnanbule (1783). Johann Heinrich Fussli [Henry Fuseli] (1741-1825, Switzerland, England).
Sully Wing, forst floor, English painters, Room 74 (The Salon of Seven Chimneys).

Posted by Judah in:  Blogging The Louvre   

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Morning News Roundup

Top of the news and stories of interest from the American and global press:

That's it for this morning.

Posted by Judah in:  Morning News Roundup   

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Understanding Reconciliation

I'm going to tread lightly on this one because people who are a good deal more knowledgeable about Iraqi politics than I am have been expressing some puzzlement over it. But there's been a recent flurry of Memoranda of Understanding coming out of Iraq, creating if not necessarily a new political landscape, then at least the outlines of the shape of things to come.

In late December, the two major Kurdish political parties, headed by Massoud Barzani and Jalil Talabani, signed a MoU with the leader of the Sunni opposition Iraqi Islamic Party, Tarik al-Hashemi. The agreement basically amounted to a power-sharing arrangement in Ninewa Province, and in particular the city of Mosul, scene of particularly brutal violence targetting the Kurdish population. It seemed to signal a possible Kurdish split from the governing coalition of PM al-Maliki. But Marc Lynch wasn't quite sure what to make of it, and Spencer Ackerman found it particularly puzzling that the agreement heavily favored the Kurds' position in the province, calling into question Hashemi's reasons for signing it.

Among the questions raised by the Kurdish-Sunni alliance was whether or not Iyad Allawi, a bitter rival of PM al-Maliki, would join them to bring down al-Maliki's coalition government. The answer came in an announcement this weekend of a MoU signed by a broad range of Shiite and Sunni political parties -- including Allawi's Iraqi National List, the Sadrist bloc, and, according to the AP, al-Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party -- basically reaffirming the Maliki government's positions in its dispute with the Kurds over oil and gas jurisdiction and the resolution of Kirkuk's status.  (It's worth mentioning that AFP didn't mention Maliki's party as being a signatory to the agreement, and suggested that the MoU could serve as the forerunner of a coalition that could immediately pressure the Maliki government and potentially unseat it.)

Three things immediately occur to me from reading these reports. The first is to wonder whether the sudden emergence of an amnesty law for ex-Baathists, which had been one of the principle points of contention between Hashemi and Maliki, wasn't a tactical maneuver by Maliki and this second MoU group not only to undermine the logic of Hashemi's new alliance, but also to isolate the Kurds. The fact that al-Sadr, previously opposed to such a law, voted for it seems to suggest this might be the case.

The second is that a lot was recently made of a tactical alliance between al-Sadr and Abdul al-Haziz's SIIC party in Basra. It seems significant that while al-Sadr signed the new MoU, al-Haziz did not. Al-Haziz is also a proponent of an autnomous Shiite region in Southern Iraq similar to the KRG in the north, another point of tension between him and al-Sadr. So I'm very interested to see where he comes down on this issue. Should he side with the central government against the Kurds (still technically part of the Maliki coalition) he undermines his claims for a similar Shiite arrangement in the South. Should he oppose the government's position, it risks re-opening the hostilities with al-Sadr (a conflict in which, by all accounts, al-Haziz has the upper hand).

The third is that all the political construction that has occurred in Iraq to date has been based on kicking the tough, divisive issues -- Kirkuk, de-Baathization, oil revenue sharing -- down the road. Which is why "political reconciliation" has become a post-Surge catchphrase for a benchmark of progress, but it's in fact a misleading one. Because many of the competing claims and interests quite simply can't be reconciled. What's needed to elevate Iraq from the legal fiction it is today into an actual nation-state worthy of the name is an acceptance on all sides to submit to the political arena as the binding arbiter of these disputes. Instead, what seems to be happening is that everyone is using the political arena to confirm their worst suspicions and to draw the battle lines, while getting their militias ready to settle the score the moment America leaves. If not before.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Confidence Man

If you're looking for an organizing logic to Nicolas Sarkozy's foreign visits, a good place to start might be the fact that he's touched down in Libya, Morocco, Algeria, and China. And each time, when he climbed aboard the plane to head back to France, he was toting a freshly signed agreement to build civilian nuclear power plants with him. So it should come as no surprise that when Sarkozy heads to Saudi Arabia and the UAE tomorrow, he's expected to sign a nuclear development deal as well. Sarkozy calls it part of a "pact of confidence which the West must forge with the Islamic world". Cynics, of course, would argue that it displays Sarkozy's fondness for deals forged by the West but signed by France.

Posted by Judah in:  La France Politique   

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Back In The Red Zone

There's a trifecta of stories today featuring Iran. Any one of them would strike me as pretty alarming. But the three together seems like a very clear indication that we've entered something of a critical moment in this long-simmering stand-off.

For starters, IAEA chief Mohamed ELBaradei wrapped up his visit to Tehran where he met with President Ahmadinejad, but also with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who rarely meets with heads of multi-lateral organizations. The significance of the talks boils down to two principle announcements. First, while reaffirming their defiance of American pressure, the Iranians have agreed to fill in the missing elements of the history of their covert nuclear procurement program within the coming month. Second, they've also revealed a program to develop sophisticated centrifuges capable of a must faster uranium enrichment capacity. Both announcements are very bad news.

The first is troubling because it will almost certainly be spun as evidence of Iran's increased cooperation with the IAEA and therefore reason for reducing the urgency of diplomatic pressure on Tehran. But this is misleading, because Iran has already demonstrated its willingness to clarify the history of its procurement program. Where it has proven less cooperative is in allowing unannounced and intrusive access to all of its nuclear program's sites to IAEA inspectors (the so-called Additional Protocol). This intrusive inspection regime is the real safeguard against military applications of the nuclear program, and yesterday's talks produced no concrete progress on that score.

What's more, the revelation of a cutting-edge centrifuge development program is sure to set off red flags in Washington and Jerusalem, for two reasons. First, if successful, it would greatly reduce the amount of time necessary to enrich the needed uranium for military use. And second, the work is being carried out in an installation to which Iran has denied access to IAEA inspectors, reinforcing fears that Tehran is basically using cooperation on known components of its program to shield progress in unknown components.

In other news out of Iraq, the Sunday Times of London reports that the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari, secretly visited the Green Zone last month to press Tehran's demands that the fate of Iranian diplomats (read: Revolutionary Guard agents) detained by US forces be included on the agenda of upcoming US-Iran ambassadorial talks on the Iraq security situation. The story's wording leaves ambiguous whether the General, who is on Washington's "most wanted" list, met with American or Iraqi officials while in Baghdad.

The visit, if true, would seem to increase the significance of both the recent naval incidents reported in the Strait of Hormuz, as well as a statement made by Gen. Petraeus to the effect that there's been an increase this month in the use of bombs typically credited to Iranian agents in Iraq. One possibility is that the US is using trumped up claims to ratchet up its rhetoric towards Tehran. But another is that the Revolutionary Guards are raising the heat with provocative gestures designed to demonstrate just how much damage they can do to American interests should they not get their "diplomats" released.

In effect, Iran has doubled down on its posture vis-a-vis the US: no concessions on the nuclear front and a very aggressive position in Iraq and the Strait of Hormuz. What makes it so alarming is that it demonstrates not only a willingness to play with fire, but also a refusal to provide any face-saving position for the US, which will have to weigh its response very carefully. I'd been wondering about the Pentagon's decision to go public with the naval incidents last week, and now I think I understand why they did. In the past, publicly pointing the finger at Tehran, for instance in Iraq, seems to have gotten results, indicating that Tehran was concerned about protecting its image. We'll soon see whether the same approach works, post-NIE.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Semiotics Of Hope

Via Jesus Politics comes an absolutely must read article by Jonathan Raban titled "The Church of Obama". It's a brilliant exposition of the semiotics of Obama's message of hope, from its roots in black liberation theology to its broader application to the national political narrative. Regular readers of the site know that I don't use these words lightly. If you think you've read everything there is to read about Barack Obama, or if you think you can't bear to read another thing about Barack Obama, click through anyway. You won't regret it.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Race In America   

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Good Times, Bad Times

I almost wrote about this last night, but it's obvious that the economy is beginning to take a more prominent role in the national zeitgeist. In the context of the presidential campaign, it's interesting for two reasons. First, the lengthened format of the primary campaign runs the risk of emphasizing positions at the outset that have less impact when it comes time to cast ballots. In January 2006, when everyone was announcing their candidacies, the war in Iraq was clearly the main issue on people's minds. With the recent decrease in violence, that's likely to give way to growing anxiety over the economy.

Second, and at the risk of stating the obvious, this can only benefit Hillary Clinton's candidacy. To begin with, of the three candidates, she's the one with the most vulnerable position among Democratic voters adamantly opposed to the war. But more than that, whether it's warranted or not, economic prosperity is a fundamental component of the Clinton brand identity. This is one issue where people would find a repeat of the 90's not at all unwelcome.

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   Politics   

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Campaigner-in-Chief

What Hillary Clinton alludes to but never comes out and says when she mentions her experience with Team Clinton is that she has experience not so much in governing, but in campaigning. That's why she thinks she's more prepared to take on the GOP candidate come November, and why she so often brings the argument back to dealing with the rigors of the campaign. (It's also one of the striking internal contradictions in her 'emotional moment', since that was in effect a reaction to what she's been presenting as one of her strengths.) Of course, part of the Clinton method of governing is the permanent campaign, so for her it follows that she's got more governing experience than Obama also.

At the same time, the clear subtext of Clinton's "ready on day one" theme is the Commander-in-Chief function. But she really doesn't have any professional qualifications in that area that make her any more ready than Obama. What gives her the gravitas she's talking about is the foreign policy company she's been keeping for fifteen years now (and yes, that can rub off on someone as bright and ambitious as Hillary Clinton is), and the fact that if push comes to shove, a guy who has already exercised the Commander-in-Chief function will presumably be sitting across from her at the dinner table each night.

Oddly enough, though, while Bill Clinton was adored the world over and his foreign policy was probably better than average, his relationship with the military was rocky at best. So far Hillary's gotten a pass on that one.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Pipeline Diplomacy

Contrary to what an article I cited yesterday claimed, The New Anatolian reports that Russia did in fact increase its gas deliveries to Turkey to make up for the shortfall resulting from the shutdown of its Iranian pipeline. It also reported that following discussions between Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Iranian President Ahamdinejad, Iran's deliveries should be back to normal come Monday.

Still, there are a lot of reasons to think this whole episode had more to do with regional jockeying than with the weather, although as always with pipeline diplomacy, that served as an excuse. Not much mention was made in the American press of the American proposal that Turkey serve as a regional energy hub for Iraqi and Eurasian energy traffic, but I think it's a huge development, central to the way the Bush administration envisions the short-term strategic alignment in the region: using a combination of energy-poor Turkey and energy-rich Iraq and Azerbaijan to counter Russia's influence in Eurasian energy markets and Iran's expansion in the Middle East.

The sticking point had been the PKK, but the Kurds are above all else businessmen. And since Turkey is already the largest investor in Iraqi Kurdistan, they've got a lot of incentive to let Turkey and the US take care of the PKK, so that afterwards they can all take care of business.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   Russia   Turkey   

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Friday, January 11, 2008

paK Street

In case you missed it, Pakistan has hired not one but two lobby shops to polish its image in Washington and help fight off Congressional attempts to place restrictions on US aid. Ogilvy & Mather, one of the firms hired by Islamabad, declares on its website, "We work not for ourselves, not for the company, not even for the client. We work for brands." Which is, of course, nonsense. Ogilvy & Mather works for money, and not surprisingly that's just what Pakistan is paying them. $45K per month, to be exact, which is peanuts compared to the amount of US aid at stake.

But putting that aside for a second, what kind of brand is Pakistan, anyway? A pretty unsuccessful one, that's what. Anytime you start with military dictators and illegal nuclear proliferation both at home and abroad, you've got a problem on your hands. But when you throw in an Islamic insurgency, suicide bombers, autonomous tribal areas and political mayhem, you've got a pretty toxic mix. Market research has consistently demonstrated that when it comes to nuclear brands, even illegal ones, people prefer stability.

But if a nuclear-armed military dictatorship balancing on a precipice between Islamic insurgents on one side and rioting lawyers on the other doesn't quite make for an appealing brand identity, what, then, would you re-brand Pakistan as? Oddly enough, every time I see an old photo of Benazir Bhutto as a young woman, I think to myself that you could probably base a pretty winning brand image on that. Of course that's exactly what the PPP did before she was assassinated. Which explains why, given the choice, I'd much rather be working for the lobby shop that the PPP hired in order to pressure Congress to call for an international investigation of her death, even if they are only getting $30K per month for the gig.

One thing is certain. Pervez Musharraf can't exactly coopt Bhutto's image now that she's dead, given that she was basically tearing him out a new one when she was alive. So the options for a new Pakistan brand identity just don't seem that good. All of which means that the reason for hiring Ogilvy probably has less to do with its brand management services, and more to do with press releases like this one.

Posted by Judah in:  Pakistan   

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Putin's Bark

In a move that raised some eyebrows yesterday, Vladimir Putin appointed a nationalist hardliner, Dmitry Rogozin, as Russia's permanent envoy to NATO. Rogozin wasted no time making his voice heard, warning the alliance not to increase its own security at the expense of others, and emphasizing the political dossiers he would be handling -- including the CFE treaty, Kosovo and Iran -- as opposed to his diplomatic function. On a more reassuring note, he referred to the CFE as a matter of trust, observing that "No sane person, even in his worst nightmare, can imagine us waging war against Europe."

2008 is shaping up to be a pretty significant year for American-Russian bi-lateral relations, as well as for NATO/EU-Russian relations. The crises that Rogozin mentioned will all have significant impact down the road, and the lameduck Bush administration is not in a position, either internationally or domestically, to seriously address them. And while I think there's a tendency to exagerrate Russia's strategic position -- one that I'm probably guilty of to a certain extent -- the risk isn't a direct confrontation with Russia, but rather Russia's ability to comfort our enemies.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Friday, January 11, 2008

How It Looks From Here

While much of the media is busily engaged in a round of soul-searching in the aftermath of the New Hampshire primary, the editorial staff here at Headline Junky (consisting of Messrs. Meehe, Mycelfe, and Aiye) is feeling pretty comforted. All of my major predictions regarding the Dems were, as a Brit mason I worked for down in Provence used to say, spot on. (As for the GOP, can anyone really figure that train wreck out?) I resisted the tide of euphoria surrounding Obama's Iowa victory, and maintained that the race was still on when to do so amounted to little more than a stubborn refusal to accept reality. I also called Hillary's winning strategy while most people were busy writing her epitaph.

All of which means that although I went to bed the night of the primary feeling like a rube, I woke up the next morning wondering if I might not actually know what I'm talking about after all. (Dumb luck and bad polling can give you those kinds of ideas.) So while it's admittedly difficult to write and pat myself on the shoulder at the same time, I thought I'd take a shot at spoiling my track record by offering some thoughts about how things look from here.

To begin with, I mentioned the other day that I'd love to see a Democratic unity rally, with the three major candidates appearing together for a moment of non-partisan self-congratulations. I'd even gone so far as to formulate it as, The first candidate to tend the olive branch wins. To which a friend replied that he was glad to see I'd found a satisfactory source of crack rock here in Paris.

In thinking about it some more, I realized that he's right, but I'm righter. With the changed dynamics coming out of New Hampshire, Barack Obama has got to add some edge to his image. Sharpen the elbows a bit, bring his depth and expertise more into focus, and try to move beyond his charismatic and inspirational presence without necessarily abandoning it. He's got to get it back to being a vessel for his message, not a straitjacket for his candidacy. So paradoxically, for an Obama campaign that's made unity and bi-partisanship a catchword, now would be a bad time to actually engage in it.

For Clinton, on the other hand, the olive branch is a winning proposition, especially if it's tended over the walls of an impregnable fortress of competency. The five days of desperation in New Hampshire brought out the best of Clinton, the candidate, and the worst of Clinton, the campaign. She needs to consolidate the first and rid herself of the second, and if she manages to do so, she's got a pretty strong chance of winning the nomination comfortably. To accomplish the first, she needs to at all costs avoid the trap of believing that she can repeat the miracle of her 'emotional moment'. She made her point: the Terminator has feelings.

But in the same way that the Clinton campaign shouldn't "...start thinking up dozens of ways to 'humanize' Hillary over the next couple of weeks..." as Kevin Drum put it, it shouldn't forget the lesson entirely and go back to bare knuckle tactics either. The NH firewall held, but as a result the fire's been extinguished. Which is why an olive branch now reinforces the image of a Clinton campaign operating from a position of strength and confidence.

Which isn't to say Clinton should stop being aggressive. But her aggressiveness should be about promoting her strengths and consolidating an organizing theme for her candidacy, rather than targetting Obama. She can count on Edwards to do that for her.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Pavlov's Smile

Sorry, that's all I could think of when I watched this clip of John Edwards on Morning Joe the other day. The content itself (his comments on Hillary's 'emotional moment') is already past the expiration date, but keep your eyes on Edwards as he comes into the frame:

Notice how the smile starts at his right eyebrow and spreads to one corner of his mouth before finally pulling the rest of his face with it? You can almost see the conditioned response: red light (ding!); time to smile, John!

Superficial, I know, but I've got a visceral aversion to this guy, which is probably why I mention him about zero percent of the time. The impression he made in NH only sealed the deal. The only question left about his candidacy is whether he'll bow out gracefully, or decide to take Obama with him. Judging by last week, Obama had better get ready to cover both flanks.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Friday, January 11, 2008

No Apologies

I think Matthew Yglesias is close here, but he and others who point to Hillary Clinton's refusal to apologize for her Iraq War authorization vote are missing the real vulnerability of her position. Clinton's explanation, both for her vote and her refusal to apologize for it, boils down to the claim that in voting for the authorization, she believed she was only giving President Bush negotiating leverage for a diplomatic resolution of the UN WMD inspection stand-off. And it's a solid defense in that it allows her to deny the accusation that she supported the war, as opposed to the threat of war.

The line of attack it really opens up, though, is actually far more damaging, because it goes to the heart of her current campaign message: competency and experience. Because if Clinton really believed that the Bush administration -- and even worse the Bush administration as it was then constituted -- was simply going to use the authorization as a negotiating ploy, then she hasn't actually benefitted much from all her experience in Washington. I've spoken to French diplomats who were convinced as early as spring 2001 (ie. before 9/11) that given the pretext, the Bush administration would invade Iraq. So if Clinton claims to have been unaware of the real significance of her vote, she's either lying or not as savvy as she claims.

It's a potentially devastating attack, because it really calls Hillary Clinton's major claim to the nomination -- that she understands how to fight the partisan battles in Washington -- into question. But so far, people have gotten caught up on the politics of apologies.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Morning News Roundup

Top of the news and stories of interest from the American and world press:

That's all for this morning.

Posted by Judah in:  Morning News Roundup   

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sending It Down The Line

Just before New Year's, Turkmenistan shut down the gas pipeline supplying Iran with 5% of its domestic consumption. The reason was ostensibly technical malfunctions, but the malfunctions have oddly enough not yet been repaired. As the shutdown coincides with a fierce cold front that has gripped the region and sent temperatures plummeting, Iran in turn all but shut down the pipeline that supplies Turkey with roughly the same amount of Iranian gas that Iran imports from Turkmenistan. Russia, which has in the past made up Turkey's gas shortfalls, in this case not only refused, but suggested it would be forced to reduce its deliveries as well, due to a supply shortage.

The entire episode demonstrates either, a) the ways in which weather can impact on international relations; or b) the complex energy calculus underlying, and at times working at cross-purposes to, some of the strategic re-alignments in the region. And for a number of reasons, not least of which being that this is not a weather forecasting site, I'm going to go with "b".

For a little background, Russia recently secured a contract with Turkmenistan for its gas reserves. The deal was considered a serious blow to American and Western European hopes for securing Turkmenistan's gas supplies independently of Russia. It was also part of what some suggested was a broader cartel strategy by which Russia and Iran would carve up the gas market: Western Europe for Russia; Asia for Iran. Tehran's imminent pipeline and purchase deal with Pakistan, as well as its negotiations with China and India to develop domestic gas and oil fields can be understood in this context.

But the same deal between Russia and Turkmenistan is also the source of this week's rolling pipeline shutdown, because Russia agreed to pay twice the price that Turkmenistan gets from Iran, and the "technical malfunctions" notwithstanding, it's no secret that Turkmenistan is looking to renegotiate with Tehran.

As for Turkey, it's also no secret that both Iran and Russia were counting on taking advantage of recent tension between Ankara and Washington to forge closer relations with Turkey. Both Iran's decision to pass the gas shortage down the line and Russia's decision to sit on its hands coincide with the recent rapprochement between Ankara and Washington, culminated by President Bush's warm reception of Turkish President Abdullah Gul two days ago at the White House. The visit was the occasion not only to reaffirm America's strategic relationship with Turkey, but also to roll out a very ambitious role for Turkey as a regional energy hub for both Iraqi and Eurasian gas and oil reserves.

As the episode demonstrates, none of these tactical alliances are stable. The entire region is in a flux, and it's not at all clear how things will settle in the long run. The uncertainty, while volatile and unfamiliar, can also be used to our advantage, should we adopt an intelligent and flexible strategic approach. Our enemies and rivals of today might turn out to be, if not our friends of tomorrow, at least useful leverage points.

One thing is certain. There's a bunch of Greeks freezing their souvlakis off who had nothing to do with this whole mess.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   Turkey   

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Diyala Surprise

What's significant about Diyala in particular, in addition to everything Matthew Yglesias mentions, is that it's also the first area that the Surge drawdown impacted. Back in November, the Pentagon announced that it would be bringing 3000 troops stationed in Diyala home, with the province being added to the bailiwick of a brigade operating near Baghdad:

Soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, will not be replaced by a new unit when they leave the ethnically and religiously mixed province north of Baghdad by January, U.S. military officials said.

Instead, troops from the larger 4th Striker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, located near Baghdad, will take over the area...

Here's how the Armed Forces Press Service described the move:

The redeployment of the brigade shows the coalition's confidence in Iraqi security forces and reflects the overall improved security in the country, Smith said. The brigade -- based in Diyala province -- will not leave a vacuum in the province.

"We do not intend to give back our hard-fought ground," Smith said. "Repositioning of coalition and Iraqi security forces will ensure that overall force levels and combat capability levels in Diyala will be tailored to meet emerging threats."

And consistent with the script, as recently as three weeks ago, the second-in-command in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, was expressing his confidence that the troop reduction would not jeopardize security gains.

But oddly enough, in a DoD press briefing that coincided with Odierno's pronouncement, reporters asked Maj. Gen Richard Sherlock about reports they'd gotten from commanders in Diyala that they needed more troops, in particular to deal with the flow off insurgents from Baghdad. At one point they specifically questioned the wisdom of beginning the drawdown in the very region that seemed to be serving as a refuge for insurgents fleeing the Surge in Baghdad. Sherlock basically dodged the question, but not before he'd dropped this pearl:

The other thing they'll find different about those areas now, rather than three years ago, is that the people are much less willing to put up with the kind of brutal attacks that those groups bring on the people.

Of course, by all accounts, the insurgents, which as usual have been dubbed Al Qaeda in Iraq, were nowhere to be found when this week's operation -- a closely guarded secret, especially from the Iraqi troops in which we have so much confidence -- was launched, leaving the sneaking suspicion that maybe they enjoy more popular support than the General was letting on.

All of which is to say that there's nothing surprising about all of this. To the contrary, it was foreseen as soon as it was announced. Whether or not it develops into a major fiasco remains to be seen. It could be that the security situation holds. But if it doesn't, no one can say there weren't any warning signs.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Race Begins?

This Stan Simpson op-ed strikes me as close to the mark:

The litmus test for me on Obama and his potential to persuade us to look past race will happen when his African American support emerges on the national stage.

When those camera backdrops are no longer the faces of mostly white Iowans and New Hampshirites but African Americans giddy with racial pride about Obama's prospects -- if Obama can sustain his white support then -- well, OK, he's got something...

South Carolina will be significant for a few reasons. First to see whether black voters break for Obama or not (polls suggest they will). And second, to see what impact that has on his national appeal. As Simpson points out, Jesse Jackson won five primaries in 1984 and thirteen in 1988, while never once being considered anything other than a black (as opposed to a serious) candidate. It's easy to say that Obama and America have transcended race, but it's more accurate to say that Obama has largely ignored it and America has not yet associated it with him.

This strikes me as one area where, in the debate between whether misogyny or racism is more decisive in American politics, Hillary Clinton actually has the advantage. As her 'emotional moment' showed, when she demonstrates behavior that in traditional gender stereotypes is considered feminine, it can wind up benefitting her (among voters if not with the press). And what I said here notwithstanding, if Obama ever engages in (pronounced) behavior that in traditional racial stereotypes is considered black, chances are he's history.

So it will be very instructive to watch Obama's language, both spoken language and body language, while publicly campaigning for black votes, in regards to how comfortable both Obama and America really are with a candidate who is both black and serious.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Race In America   

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Morning News Roundup

Top of the news and stories of interest from the American and world press:

That's it for this morning.

Posted by Judah in:  Morning News Roundup   

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Loaded Dice

I was wondering how long it would take for claims of vote fraud in New Hampshire to surface. I admit it was among the first things that occurred to me after the initial surprise of Cinton's victory faded. Of course, the essential conspiracy theory question here is, if Diebold really did throw the primary to Clinton, who were they taking their marching orders from? Are the Clintons now on the Diebold board? Or was it Karl Rove, who'd rather see Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate come November? Or is it a grand unified field theory whereby they all really work out of the same back office?

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

One On One

From Taegan Goddard comes this Hillary Clinton quote:

"Well, at the debate on Saturday night I was laughing because in that debate, obviously Senator Edwards and Senator Obama were in the 'buddy system' on the stage, and I was thinking, 'Well, whoever's up there against the Republican nominee in the election debates, come the fall, is not going to have a buddy to fall back on.' You know, you're out there all by yourself."

To paraphrase, 'These guys are so sorry that even ganging up on me, they can't take me out. So, really, who do you want going one on one against the GOP come November?'

It's a great meme for two reasons. First, it resonates with what everyone saw go down last Saturday. And second, it makes it hard for Edwards and Obama to lay off each other and maintain their credibility. Remember, Edwards was the first one to go after Clinton leading up to Iowa, and eventually he's going to have to go after Obama. The sooner that happens, the better Clinton's chances look.

Update: I should clarify that I don't think that Edwards and Obama, in order to remain credible, need to quit playing doubles, but more that it's what Hillary is trying to suggest. Let's you and him fight, so to speak.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Class Warfare

One of the puzzling contradictions of suicide bombings is that, despite the common wisdom linking it to poverty and economic development, the actual bombers themselves are disproportionately middle class. In a fascinating essay about the dynamics of face-to-face violence over at Foreign Policy, sociologist Randall Collins explains why that is:

Clandestine, confrontation-avoiding violence such as suicide bombing is a fourth pathway around confrontational tension. It succeeds only because the attacker is good at pretending that he or she is not threatening at all. People accustomed to the typical macho forms of violence are not good at this; gang members would make lousy suicide bombers. But mild-mannered middle-class people are ideal for it. Since they are not confrontational by nature, they do not have to control a blustering or threatening demeanor that would warn their victims. Self-directed introverts, they do not need to hear cheering as they stalk their prey. Middle-class culture is especially accommodative, adept at maintaining a smooth surface of conventionality. Whatever our private feelings, we learn not to express them on the job, in social situations, or in public. This is good training for carrying a bomb under one’s clothing until the target is so close that massive damage is certain.

Richard Posner adds, in a rebuttal to a Gary Becker premise that terrorism is susceptible to economic development, that terrorism is grievance-driven, and that the grievances are predominantly political rather than economic. Which makes it the domain of the intelligentsia, who according to Posner, "...have the leisure and the education to think big thoughts, like overthrowing a government, which rarely brings material improvements." He also notes that terrorist operations demand a very small number of highly reliable and semi-skilled operatives, as opposed to the cannon fodder of conventional militaries, which leads to targeted recruiting.

Combine that with the historic alienation of the middle class (especially in the third world), throw in a pinch of nostalgia for a lost golden age of moral clarity and purity, and you've got a pretty lethal cocktail.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Who Gets The Center?

In trying to explain his loss, a lot of people -- and especially Obama supporters -- have grabbed hold of the theory that NH independents, believing that Obama had the primary in the bag, felt free to vote for McCain. And according to this MyDD post, it seems to be supported by John Zogby's post-primary wrap-up.

My first reaction was to think of something Segolene Royal said with regard to centrist Francois Bayrou's candidacy here last spring: when push come to shove, the center always falls to the right. And I think that's worth considering by people who take an Obama victory in the general election for granted, especially in a potential match-up against McCain.

Granted, the dynamics in New Hampshire were different than a head-to-head contest, and the logic was that Obama didn't need their votes. But McCain looked pretty strong going into primary night as well. And given the choice, the independents broke for McCain. Something to think about.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Up And Coming

If you've been following developments in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, you'll be familiar with the name Baitullah Mehsud. He's the cross-border Taliban commander who was accused of masterminding Benazir Bhutto's assassination. But Mehsud's something like a hot prospect climbing through the Taliban farm system. Jamestown Foundation has got a profile, and it's worth reading. Barring a successful missile strike, we're going to be hearing a lot more about this guy over the next few years.

Posted by Judah in:  Pakistan   

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Moving The Lines

So it looks like the Bi-partisanship Forum out in Oklahoma didn't generate much buzz for a Mike Bloomberg independent presidential run. Apparently not even the attendees had much difficulty containing their enthusiasm. Scheduling it on the same day as the New Hampshire primary might not have helped much, either.

There's been a fair amount of disdain poured out on this meeting, especially from the left, and perhaps justifiably so. To the extent that forming tactical coalitions across party lines doesn't really offer any longterm stable mandate to govern, I agree.

What I question is why the line separating the parties is so indelibly fixed smack dab in the middle. The idea of a political left and right is the legacy of an arbitrary seating plan in the French Revolution-era National Assembly. And while American politics has historically been a two-party system, the faultlines within the two parties at times appear more pronounced than the historical center-line that supposedly divides them.

Admittedly, this is more so on the Republican side than on the Democratic, which probably explains the left's disdain for the idea of bi-partisanship. But it seems to me that centrist Democrats like Obama and Clinton have more in common with the moderate Republicans who would be left out in the cold by a potential Huckabee presidency than they do with the Daily Kos faction of the Democratic Party. Which would be the logical underpinning to the argument that instead of holding hands across the center line, it would be better to define a centrist party by its right- and left-most limits.

Maybe this is just a result of my expat lense and my distance from the actual political culture Stateside. But it's what I think Obama is talking about when he evokes a "new majority". Not just ending the bickering, but moving the lines.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Subprime Politics

Matthew Yglesias makes the point that housing foreclosures haven't really hit Iowa or New Hampshire, keeping this huge issue out of the campaign for the time being. Based on a Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies brief I flagged last month, I'd wager that has something to do with the fact that subprime mortgages, both by targeted marketing and self-selection, disproportionately effected blacks and minorities, and Iowa and NH are both lily-white. Yglesias is correct in noting that we're likely to hear the candidates weigh in on this given the impact the housing slump has had on California, Nevada and Florida.

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   Politics   Race In America   

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Victory Lap

This exit polling data, from Ezra Klein's New Hampshire wrap-up, jumped out at me:

Voters bought Obama’s argument that he was the most electable. They even bought Obama’s argument that he was the best able to bring about change. But a plurality named Hillary Clinton “the best Commander-in-Chief,” and Clinton overwhelmingly won their votes.

Think about that for a second. In 2007, Democratic voters feel that the most electable candidate is a black man, and the most convincing Commander-in-Chief is a woman. What a testament to this country, and what a testament to this Party.

In my reflex to resist the Obama euphoria coming out of Iowa, I probably didn't give enough credit to the historic aspect of his victory. But these two results back to back, combined with that exit polling data, really made me stop and realize how much this Party has led and is leading America in the march towards social justice.

Now that the frenetic pace between Iowa and NH has eased off a bit, I'd love to see a Democratic unity rally, a victory lap for what we've accomplished as a Party. To see the three candidates together on a stage celebrating not their candidacies, but the Party that shelters them, would be huge.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Morning News Roundup

Here's the top of the news and stories of interest from the American and world press, once again excluding campaign coverage:

Posting will be light until this afternoon.

Posted by Judah in:  Morning News Roundup   

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Whoa-mentum!!

I was undecided as I woke up this morning whether the title of this post would be 'Whoa-bama' or 'Mo-bama'. Then it occurred to me to go with a Truman/Dewey-inspired 'Clinton Wins! (Just Kidding)'. Just kidding, indeed. That makes twice in a week that this campaign has given us a major surprise. In an age of voter cynicism, blanket media coverage, and scientific polling, that already strikes me as a very good thing.

I agree also with Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan that ultimately this is good for the process, good for the party and good for the candidates. I'm tempted to say especially for Obama, who will now get a chance to respond to a reversal of fortune. I think he also benefits from not winning the nomination based on a momentary wave of euphoria. After all, as a friend reminded me last night, there was a brief moment four years ago when John Kerry seemed like a sure thing, and while I think Obama is a much better candidate than Kerry was, the test of a true campaign can only put to rest questions about his toughness, while also providing him with invaluable experience.

But for more obvious reasons this is really a dramatic boost for Clinton. The shock of Iowa brought out the worst aspects of the Clinton machine, which in turn brought out the worst in the press. But the panic and desperation also seemed to bring out the best in Clinton herself. Hopefully the lesson won't be lost on her. The victory should also put to rest the rumors of a Swiftboat campaign against Obama, which any way you look at it would have been disastrous both for Clinton and the Party.

On the other hand, if there's a potential downside for Hillary, it's if she draws the wrong conclusions about just why she managed to eke out the victory (which is admittedly not very clear). If she decides that it was due to the stream of baseless attacks on Obama's record and Bill Clinton's bareknuckled campaigning, she's headed for trouble, because those tactics play directly into the fears and expectations of the haters.

Now admittedly there are some Clinton haters that she'll never convince. But I'm not so sure they're as unreachable a crowd as the media makes them out to be. If the campaign were a super-hero movie and Clinton were the super-villain, she wouldn't be the one who's so evil through and through that the audience never sympathizes with. She'd be the super-villain who has a brief moral dilemma, just at the end of act two, a moment of emotional candor that gives the audience a reason to root for her. Or more accurately, to root for the good that's in her to win out over her evil instincts. Sound familiar?

Of course, in the movie, the super-villain quickly shakes off the moment of weakness, tosses off a memorable one-liner and lets rip with the hurting. To win the nomination, Clinton needs to show us what act three looks like if, just once, the good wins out.

A reliable indication of whether that happens is if she goes ahead with the rumored post-NH campaign shakeup. The move would have amounted to hitting the panic button in the event of a loss. Coming out with the victory as she did, she could frame it as a change in tone in the context of having heard the voters. If she does that, I think she's got a good chance of locking up the nomination. If she goes ahead with business as usual, all bets are off.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Slang Thang

Ezra Klein makes a good point:

...One element of Obama's appeal to young people that has not garnered much attention is his speech patterns. Not the oratorical brilliance he demonstrates on the stump, but the slang. There was something undeniably powerful about watching him lean into the microphone the night he won the Iowa Caucus and saying, "Give it up for my wife Michelle!" Politicians don't say "give it up." My generation does. They also don't say, by way of greeting, "what's going on?" And they shake hands, they don't, as Obama often does, slap into a clasp linked around the thumbs.

I noticed the "Give it up for my wife, Michelle!" last week myself. There's also a point in the interview I linked to here when he refers to his security detail as a bunch of secret service guys "who are packing". When I heard it, my first thought was 'Does everyone who hears that know he's referring to their guns?' My second was, 'Can he really afford to talk street like that?' I was reminded of a recent Matthew Yglesias post in which he wondered if America was ready for a President who watches The Wire.

There's something more complicated going on here than just a generational thing, though. Because Obama isn't of the same generation as the young people in the audience, or as Ezra Klein, for that matter. And while they've grown up in a generation where everyone speaks hip hop, Obama didn't. This is language that has become the way young people speak, but has its origins in the way black people spoke.

The fact that Obama can so seamlessly and authentically insinuate it into the political discourse says something about the gray area of American identity that he inhabits, between black and white, street and campus, authentic and constructed. But in "transcending" race, Obama in fact represents a composite of several American racial archetypes. He's the black man who alleviates white guilt by making white people feel comfortable about race. He's the hip black man who makes square white people feel like they're "down" by unself-consciously talking to them as if they were. He's also the black man who managed to "play the white man's game" without losing his street cred, an uncommon but archetypal black persona that combines aspects of the House and Field Negroes while being wholly neither. (Specifically, neither servile as the former nor angry as the latter.)

By all appearances, Obama's just one of those guys, and in particular one of those black guys, who gets props wherever he goes and whoever he's with. That it's in a style that's more recognizable to younger people is understandable. But it's not an age thang. It's a black thang.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Race In America   

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Election Factoid

It's buried beneath turnout projections for New Hampshire, but via Ezra Klein comes an interesting detail that I hadn't quite registered yet. This is the first presidential election since 1928 in which there's been neither a sitting president or vice-president seeking the nomination.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Get Out The Raingear

Whenever people raise questions about Barack Obama's toughness as a campaigner, it's always in the context of the Swiftboating the eventual Democratic candidate is sure to endure during the general election. For his part, Obama has consistently responded by saying he's tough enough to handle it. So I guess the one good thing about this rumor that the Clinton campaign is lining up some proxies to unload on him is that we'll actually get to see if that's true. Seriously, though, if this is how Clinton intends to hunker down and stick it out, she's already lost.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Groupies

This Slate video that Josh Marshall puts front and center makes twice in two days that I've seen Hillary ridiculed for basically taking hours of questions from the audience at a campaign event. (Here's one from Dana Milbank that Andrew Sullivan featured.) All the operative tags are tossed into the clips about Obama drawing rock star crowds and Hillary boring her folks to tears. But if she's taking questions, that means there are folks asking them, which suggests they're interested in the answers.

It might be true, as E.J. Dionne put it, that Clinton is "...campaigning in prose and has left the poetry to Barack Obama." But while this may be a fatal campaign tactic, does it really warrant the kind of caustic sarcasm she's taking for it? We already know that given the choice between covering policy and covering a rock star, the press will choose the rock star. But since when did it become something to be proud of?

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Post-Conflict, Pre-Problem

Putting aside the regulatory nightmares presented by private military contractors for a moment, there's really something disconcerting about the way they use the world's post-conflict areas as recruitment pools. The Christian Science Monitor has a piece worth reading on how Special Operations Consulting-Security Management Group (an outfit that's been contracted by the DoD to work in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also by Microsoft, Norwegian Cruise Lines, and Pacific Gas & Electric) has set up shop in Namibia. And over the summer I flagged an article about how Blackwater was using subcontractors to recruit in Chile.

Of course, one of the ancillary consequences of resolving civil wars or replacing repressive police states with democratically elected governments is a large body of unemployed, highly trained paramilitary and military personnel. That they also happen to come from countries where, due to economic conditions and exchange rates, the best they can hope for is pennies on the dollar compared to what outfits like Blackwater and SOC-SMG pay only makes it easier to seal the deal.

The moral contradictions involved in using these personnel pools in a "democracy building" exercise such as Iraq or Afghanistan are obvious. But there are also more practical concerns. There remain very concrete distinctions between the functions these contractors fill and that of mercenaries. But the African continent's experience with mercenary groups -- who have been involved in "coup for hire" operations, arms trafficking and organized crime -- demonstrates some of the dangers that come along with a culture of private paramilitary organizations. It's a culture we're now nurturing. And it's the kind of chicken that eventually comes home to roost.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Dead Man Walking, Tehran Edition

According to this IHT article, now that the Iran NIE report has essentially removed the possibility of an American attack, the previously muted political faultlines in Tehran have begun to re-emerge. Specifically, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who previously emphasized national unity in the face of the threat of attack, has conspicuously refrained from protecting President Ahmadinejad from his critics. The article also refers to a parallel diplomatic track that Khamenei has conducted using Ali Larijani, the former nuclear negotiator that Ahmadinejad replaced with hardliner Saeed Jalili.

I'm not sure exactly how this piece squares with a few items I flagged last week, in particular Khamenei's very harsh language to describe critics of Ahmadinejad's handling of the nuclear standoff. In addition to Khamenei's major foreign policy pronouncement (in which he also rejected any immediate engagement with the US), Saeed Jalili recently reshuffled the nuclear negotiating team to add more hardliners, and the Iranian navy nearly provoked a shooting incident in the Strait of Hormuz. And all of that in the week leading up to President Bush's visit to the Middle East. So if Tehran is a house divided, it doesn't seem to be reflected in its posture either towards the nuclear standoff in particular, or the US in general.

Update: As noted here, the "previously muted political faultlines in Tehran" were not really that muted. Which makes the IHT piece pretty curious any way you look at it.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Is Obama The Antidote To Obama Mania?

I woke up this morning thinking of the Obama bandwagon effect as yet another expression of the speculative bubble mentality that has increasingly characterized America recently. In the absence of inherent value, create exagerrated claims and ride the wave.

As is my nature, though, I immediately identified the counter-argument to that metaphor. Obama does have inherent value: his intellect and his intelligence (two distinct qualities), his articulateness (which I define more broadly as a clarity of thought that allows him to identify, parse and synthesize complex subjects into coherent arguments), and his judgment. I think all of that is on display in this interview that a friend sent me. What I found especially resonant and convincing was a point he makes towards the end about listening to people who are more intelligent and better informed than he is, but trusting himself to synthesize the arguments into a final decision.

But that raises an issue I've been mulling over for the past few days about the question of trust. It's an Obama campaign buzzword that's been used to respond to everything from doubts about how the campaign was being run to questions about his experience. The thing is, after seven years of the Bush presidency, I'm not really in the mood to trust anyone. And I think it's remarkable that people across the political spectrum, but especially self-described conservatives who have advocated for Obama, would be so willing to do so.

The wisdom of the American system of checks and balances is that it's based on a healthy distrust of government and elected officials, and for good reason. Which is why although I'm considering -- even leaning towards -- voting for Obama, I'm resisting the faith-based argument. (I use that term intentionally, because there is a quasi-religious aspect to his campaign which is no less unsettling for being typically American.)

That said, I find Obama's reaction to some anti-abortion hecklers at a campaign rally yesterday instructive:

Once the audience calmed down again, Obama said, "Let me just say this, though... Some people got organized to do that. That's part of the American tradition we are proud of."

"That's hard, too, standing in the midst of people who don't agree with you," he added.

His instincts really do seem to be the polar opposite of a demagogue's, which is reassuring. The irony might turn out to be that while America might be yearning for a demagogue, Obama is unwilling to become one.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Morning News Roundup

Here's the top of the news and some stories of interest from the American and world press. I went light on the campaign coverage, since I don't think you'll have much difficulty finding that elsewhere:

As usual I'll be adding new items to the sidebar news wire over the course of the day. Think of it as the non-Drudge Report.

Posted by Judah in:  Morning News Roundup   

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Monday, January 7, 2008

Two And Out

Over the last couple days I suggested that Hillary Clinton would do well to consider how Walter Mondale beat back a stiff challenge from moderate reform candidate Gary Hart in the 1984 Democratic primaries, and that she often plays better with voters when she lets her guard down and shows her human side. This morning she cited Mondale's famous debate zinger ("Where's the beef?") on Good Morning America, and then went on to get teary-eyed in front of a group of voters in a New Hampshire coffeehouse. I guess we'll see what kind of a political consultant I am tomorrow.

I'm not so sure about the tone and magnitude of the attacks on Obama, though, especially since so many of them are turning out to be baseless. It's a tactic that plays right into the hands of the Clinton-haters, and contrasts negatively with how Obama has handled his campaign to date. As I said earlier, I'd be interested in seeing another reversal of fortunes just to see how Obama deals with being on the ropes, and whether or not he's effective fighting out of the corner. Because grabbing the frontrunner status for the first time is not the same thing as regaining it.

Unfortunately, we might not get a chance to find out. According to rumors seeping out from the Clinton camp, some of her close advisors are urging her to drop out of the race if she loses New Hampshire in order to salvage her Senate career. That strikes me as a reflection of the fundamental disconnect between political insiders and the electorate that Michael Cohen of Democracy Arsenal describes well here. It also makes no sense to cite Walter Mondale but disregard his strategy, which was to wear Hart out in a war of attrition.

Maybe things have just accelerated exponentially, or maybe the power of blanket media coverage makes it too difficult to reverse momentum once the press has determined its narrative. But I'd be really surprised if it was basically two-and-out for the nomination in a year when there really are three viable and convincing candidates. Surprised and disappointed, because I'd still like to have a choice when California votes, given that the primary is really the only meaningful vote a California Democrat casts.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Monday, January 7, 2008

A Cause To Unite Around

Kevin Drum links to the ICCC's latest civilian casualty figures from Iraq, and doesn't see much room for analysis. It reminded me to go check out Iraq Body Count's year-end report on civilian casualties, and I think they give a little more meat to chew on. Not that they don't register a decline. While IBC's totals are significantly higher than the ICCC's numbers (roughly double per month), they still show a dramatic drop in the violence that begins in September and corresponds roughly to the Surge becoming fully operational.

What's revealing, though, is where the casualties are taking place, and how they are occurring. So, for instance, while Baghdad casualties have dropped steeply (from 1168 in July to 294 in Novemeber), casualties outside of Baghdad have registered a significantly lower rate of decline (1363 in July to 683 in November). While this confirms that the troop presence has had its intended effect in Baghdad, as well as a possible "rippling out" effect elsewhere, it also confirms that the Surge, which is already in its initial drawdown phase, has not had a blanket impact on the country as a whole.

Another revealing aspect of the IBC's report is the kind of casualties now occurring. As has already been widely acknowledged, the Surge has either accomplished or coincided with one of its primary goals: sectarian murders in Baghdad accompanied by torture have shown the steepest decline of all types of casualties. More troubling is that deaths of civilian bystanders, including children, from military operations involving American forces have almost doubled since last year ( 544–623 in 2006 to 868–1,326 in 2007). Significantly, according to the IBC airstrikes have been responsible for the "vast majority" of these incidents.

Unfortunately the IBC doesn't break this last number down in a month-by-month analysis. But it evokes the Pyrrhic victory that the Surge represents as our presence evolves from a counter-insurgency to a classic occupation in the absence of any viable Iraqi government. So far we've paid the Sunnis to stop killing us, Tehran has paid the Shiites to stop killing us, and we've put up concrete barriers to keep the Sunnis and Shiites from killing each other. But no one's really made peace.

So if there's a lull in the violence, it strikes me as a very dangerous sort of lull. It's the kind of silence in which a "Blackwater incident" or a stray air-to-ground missile echoes even louder. So far we haven't been able to unite Iraqis around a common cause. But that could change, and not necessarily in the way we'd like.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, January 7, 2008

No, Coming At You

The Iranian press has got a couple of Iranian responses now regarding the reported incident in the Strait of Hormuz. According to the Foreign Ministry, the episode was misrepresented and was in fact simply a case of normal identification procedures. Meanwhile an unnamed Revolutionary Guards official claimed that it was in fact the American vessels that approached the Iranian boats to warn them out of a "Red Zone", after which the Iranian vessels radioed requests for identification.

It's just a gut feeling, but the timing on this one -- coming just before President Bush's visit to the Middle East that's been accompanied by pre-arrival anti-Iran rhetoric -- smells fishy to me. Worth keeping an eye on.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Monday, January 7, 2008

Coming At You

The Pentagon reported today that Iranian navy fastboats, possibly operated by the Revolutionary Guards, engaged in threatening high-speed runs towards American navy vessels, dropping boxes in the water ahead of the US ships and radio-ing threatening messages. According to an unnamed official, the Iranian boats pulled off at the very instant the American ships were preparing to open fire in self-defense:

The official said he didn't have the precise transcript of communications that passed between the two forces, but said the Iranians radioed something like "we're coming at you and you'll explode in a couple minutes."

There are four possibilities here. The first is that the boats were testing American rules of engagement to gather intelligence in the event of unannounced hostilities. The second is that the Iranians were intentionally trying to provoke an incident. The third is that this was a group of rogue Revolutionary Guardsmen engaged in a hazing ritual to welcome a new crewmember on board. And the fourth is that Dick Cheney is not the craziest person on either side of this conflict.

In any event, episodes like this one really show the wisdom of opening up channels of communication with Tehran. As a French foreign policy eminence who I interviewed for an upcoming article put it, foreign policy was invented to deal with enemies as much as friends. We managed to maintain diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union not just despite the fact that they were our sworn enemies and had thousands of warheads aimed at us for forty-plus years, but because of it. The same seems valid for Iran, which poses nothing close to that kind of threat.

But since fullscale diplomatic relations can't be rushed, the least we should have in place is an "incident at sea" agreement, as Kaveh Afrasiabi pointed out a few weeks ago. The Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf are high-traffic waterways, where accidents and misunderstandings can easily take place even in the absence of hotheaded crazies playing games of chicken with their speedboats. Some sort of naval hotline could help to defuse or limit such an incident in the future, which could mean the difference between an incident and a war.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Monday, January 7, 2008

Blogging The Louvre

Monday morning at 10am. The Louvre is almost empty when I arrive. Empty and vast. Imposingly vast. Here I am to begin my ambitious project, a room by room exploration of this institution of a museum, and I'm immediately disoriented by the very dimensions. Not only of the palace itself, but of my ignorance: of the museum and of everything in it. Suddenly I realize it isn't empty at all, the Louvre. It's full of artifacts, every last one of them a testament to my ignorance of the history of art before 1900.

I've already decided that my journey will end one year from now in the Holy of Holies, the Grail of tourists and Dan Brown readers alike: la Joconde. The Mona Lisa.

But where do I start? And how do I organize my itinerary along the way? Seized by a moment of doubt, I scan the floorplan and grasp hold of the first thing I find that offers a hint of security. Flemish painters, 16th century. I know about them. Fourth grade, Mrs. Wenger's class, Packer Collegiate Institute. I did my country report on Belgium, and as part of the section on "Culture" I went to an exposition at the Met, studied the catalogue, and fell in love with Hieronymous Bosch, Peter Breughels and Jan van Eyck.

I ask for directions from a docent in the Cour Marly, the great hall of marble statues, and as I describe my project to him, I'm perfectly conscious of my need to explain, to justify my presence to someone who belongs. I climb a staircase and cross the apartment of Napoleon III, where a janitor vacuums the carpet. I feel like an intruder in someone's home. But the docent, the janitor, the repairmen working on the escalator remind me of why I'm here. I project myself into the future to the time when I will feel like part of the surroundings, free to observe the goings on around me.

The purposeful act of seeking something has alleviated my moment of doubt. I pass through an enormous room devoted to Peter Paul Rubens without even a glance, taking note of the luxury of knowing I'll be able to come back to it. (Next week? Next month?) The halls are almost empty, but an art student seated with her sketchpad and two older women with easels and oils making copies of the Dutch masters remind me that there are many ways to settle into a museum, and that I'm not the only one to do so.

The only Van Eyck in the collection is disappointing, so I take a seat in a room with two Breughels, one depicting a line of blind men falling into a ditch (The Blind Leading The Blind), the other a group of beggars. But it's an enormous painting in front of me that captures my attention.

A young woman sits with a transparent shawl draped over her shoulders and lap, exposing her breasts, plump belly and thighs. At her feet a servant readies a sponge to bathe her while gazing with an amused expression at a young man who half kneels at her lady's side, his hand raised to the sky. Two other servants (one a young woman, the other a small child with African features) stare out from the scene at the viewer, the first with an expression of sadness, the second with a mischievous grin.

Is the young man a suitor? No. His outstretched hand points off to the upper lefthand corner of the painting, where an old man with tired features looks down on the scene longingly, his desire so overwhelming that it renders him frail, grasping the marble pillar of his balcony for support. The painting's title, David & Bathsheba, reveals the pair's identity: King David, moments after he's spied Bathsheba bathing on her roof below his royal palace.

Bathsheba, for her part, looks off into the distance, past the king's servant, with an ambiguous expression. The upturned corners of her mouth could be a smile. Or they could be the regret she already feels for what she knows will come to pass. She will accept David's advances, and become pregnant by him. David will in turn organize her husband's death on the battlefield to hide their adultery. The child will die as punishment for their sin; their second son, Solomon, will inherit the throne and be graced with uncommon wisdom.

I'm struck by how much the story resembles a Greek myth, with its lust and treachery, and a God who plays favorites. A God who punishes his beloved servant for disobedience, but who can't quite bring Himself to definitively turn His back on him. I'd first met David outside the Bible as a kvetching old man looking back on his life in Joseph Heller's "God Knows". But I suddenly picture him more as a Jewish Odysseus, turning to God only when his own guile and luck don't quite suffice to get the job done. Nothing like the frail old man overcome by his own passion portrayed here.

But I'm drawn in by the painting's colors and shapes, which combine to form a startlingly erotic composition. The pink of Bathsheba's exposed breasts stands out against the downy white skin of her belly, and her fleshy curves are exagerrated by the precise geometry of Jerusalem in the background. The red velvet of her servants' dresses contrast against the olive green hills stretching off into the distance, and the glistening lacquered foreground is sharpened by the matte grey, proto-impressionist rendering of the clouds.

It's 11:30, the forgotten wing of the museum begins to quicken with activity. The occasional slow footfalls of the gallery's two docents are now joined by busy steps, some hurried, some more languorous. Some circle the room quickly before heading off, others linger in front of a canvas or two. A man photographs the two Breughels that I've ignored with a digital camera and walks away examining the exposures. I've passed into anthropologist mode, as fascinated by the color-coded couple with matching shoulder-bags who move through the room with synchronized choreography and hands clasped identically behind their backs, as moments before I was by David's longing for Bathsheba.

I make my way to the exit, past Napoleon's apartment, which already feels less like a stranger's home and more like a friend's than it did an hour and a half before. I keep an eye out for familiar faces, but the guards and docents have all been rotated. I climb to the courtyard and leave the glass pyramids behind. I'll be back next week.

Resizable image of David & Bathsheba by Jan Massys (1509-1575, Antwerp). Alternate image here with better detail, but poor color reproduction and cropped. Richelieu wing, second floor, Flemish 16th century painters, room 11.

Posted by Judah in:  Blogging The Louvre   

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Monday, January 7, 2008

Morning News Roundup

I'm introducing a couple new features today. The first will be, as the title suggests, a morning news roundup. Taking advantage of the time difference between Paris and the States, I'll be doing a quick tour of the American and world press and link to some of the stories that are leading the news or provide background for stories I've been paying attention to here on the site. This will be in addition to the sidebar news wire that I'll update throughout the day. So, to kick things off:

That's it for this morning. Enjoy your coffee.

Posted by Judah in:  Morning News Roundup   

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Monday, January 7, 2008

The Privilege Of Going First

It occured to me, as I find myself torn between Obama and Clinton, that for all the arguments against Iowa and New Hampshire having a disproportionate influence on the selection of the Presidential nominees, there's something to be said for the catalytic function they serve.

There's also a price Iowa and NH voters pay for the privilege of going first. They've got to take a leap of faith or have the courage of conviction while the rest of us still have the luxury of time. I know I'm not quite ready to make a choice, and I'm glad I can wait to see how things pan out, in a reduced field for that matter.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Monday, January 7, 2008

The View From Second Place

This seems like a pretty effective approach for Hillary Clinton to adopt, although it's hard for me to get a sense of how it plays Stateside. The sudden turnaround in the race really can turn out to be a golden opportunity for Clinton, if she can avoid being perceived as too strident or desperate. Of course that's not easy given how outrageously the media tagged her forceful contrast of action and rhetoric at the debate Saturday as enraged and unhinged.

It's important to see how a candidate responds to reversals of fortune and setbacks, because those will certainly arrive once in office. She would probably do well to draw attention to that fact and make it a "meta-message" of the next few primaries.

During the long pre-primary campaign, I often read that Obama's "above the fray" campaign would work better as a frontrunner strategy, but that it made no sense given his longshot status. While he has managed to leapfrog Clinton for the time being, there's no guarantee things won't reverse again. At which point it will be very revealing to see how he reacts. I'll go so far as to say that I hope he doesn't ride a bandwagon wave straight to the nomination just to see exactly what he's made of when things don't look so rosy.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Sunday, January 6, 2008

More Pakistan Clarifications

On the same day that Pervez Musharraf finally conceded that Benazir Bhutto may have died of gunshot wounds, and a day after the WSJ reported that US intelligence officials are increasingly convinced that is indeed the case, The Times of India is citing a "senior Western official" who claims that she was definitely killed by the impact from the explosion after all. The main issue here, of course, is not the actual cause of death but the Pakistani government's credibility. So even if it turns out that she was in fact killed by a gunshot, all the government needs to show is that it wasn't unreasonable to believe otherwise. Given the amount of confusion now cast over the entire tragedy, that's looking more likely.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration's national security team is busy examining whether and how to carry out covert operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban forces within Pakistan itself. Interestingly enough, before her assassination, this seemed like one of the principle advantages of a possible Bhutto victory in Pakistan's elections. Now it's the aftermath of her death that might have changed the political landscape in Islamabad enough to make it possible. Whether or not it is advisable is another story, and given the track record of both Washington and Islamabad on this particular front, I'd say the handicapping on that one starts out with some pretty heavy odds in the "No" column.

And finally, AQ Khan (of nuclear black market fame) has just been elected President of the Senior Citizens Foundation of Pakistan. You can't make this stuff up.

Posted by Judah in:  Pakistan   

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Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Audacity Of Skepticism

A friend took me to task yesterday for being, and I quote, "...the only one this side of the milky way who didn't like Obama's speech," referring to my reaction to his Iowa victory oration. To clarify, I thought it was a great speech, and what's more, there's no doubt that Obama is an uncommonly skilled orator. I just found its triumphant tone out of proportion, almost comically so given the context. And while I think that dispassionate analysis bears out my reservations about his historic references, I grant that the more accurate comparison (ie. a situation resembling 1976-80 that demands patient resolve and strategic pragmatism to restore our faith in the executive and our standing in the world) makes for far less inspiring rhetoric. So much for the speech.

My reaction to the speech, though, is based on a broader resistance to the euphoria surrounding his caucus victory and the quasi-religious appeal of his campaign in general, which perhaps demands more of an explanation. It's based simply on an instinctive distrust of charismatic leaders who base their appeal on emotional manipulation of the masses. That Obama's message is based on hope rather than fear distinguishes him from the demagogues and despots, the Rudy Giuliani's and Hugo Chavez's of the world, or what Andrew Sullivan calls "the man on the balcony". But the mechanism is the same, and it makes me nervous. Anytime I see a massive assembly of human beings pumped up on emotion, my first reflex is to make a mental note of the quickest path to the exit. My second reflex is to see how the arguments that got everyone worked up stand up to the cold hard light of reason.

Which is what makes Obama such a complex candidate for me. Because while his oratory is emotionally convincing but historically inaccurate, his talent for parsing the issues and his broader judgment do stand up to a more dispassionate analysis. What's more, by temperament he appeals to both my liberal hopes for a more just society as well as my more moderate expectations of what government can and should accomplish. But I'm vacillating between voting for him or Hillary Clinton, and Matthew Yglesias, discussing last night's debate, best distills the essence of my dilemma:

Clinton doesn't wow you, but she takes care of business. Barack Obama is clearly not at his best in this format -- he delivers great setpiece speeches and is very appealing in a small group, but doesn't quite seem sure of his tone when seated around the table.

Of course, "around the table" is where most of the day to day, nuts and bolts of governing takes place. Now Yglesias was referring to the debate format, not the act of governing, and in any event, Obama is by all accounts skilled at getting legislation, even potentially unpopular legislation, passed. But if I end up voting for him, it will be because of his insight and his effectiveness, not his oratory skills, even if I do admire them as a performance art.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Saturday, January 5, 2008

Why Hillary Should Really Hart Obama

Well, it looks like the bandwagon is taking off without me. The polls coming out of New Hampshire show a strong bump for Obama coming out of Iowa, and by all accounts the Clinton campaign is in panic mode. Part of this has to do with the fact that only five days separate the two primaries, so there's little time to let the afterglow of Iowa wear off and re-calibrate the tone and message. But it could very well be that without the sheen of inevitability, Hillary Clinton just doesn't make that attractive a candidate.

Still, thinking it over, my reference to Walter Mondale in 1984 was more prescient than I'd at first realized. This seems like a scenario that Hillary Clinton would do well to consider before engaging in any desperation attacks that will probably incur longterm costs well beyond any dubious shorterm gains:

Colorado Senator Gary Hart was a more serious threat to Mondale, and after winning several early primaries it looked as if he might take the nomination away from Mondale. Hart criticized Mondale as an "old-fashioned" New Deal Democrat who symbolized "failed policies" of the past. Hart positioned himself as a younger, fresher, and more moderate Democrat who could appeal to younger voters. He emerged as a formidable candidate, winning the key New Hampshire, Ohio, and California primaries as well as several others, especially in the West. However, Hart couldn't overcome Mondale's financial and organizational advantages, especially among labor union leaders in the Midwest and industrial Northeast. Hart was also badly hurt when Mondale, in a televised debate with Hart during the primaries, used a popular television commercial slogan to ridicule Hart's vague "New Ideas" platform. Turning to Hart on camera, Mondale told Hart that whenever he heard Hart talk about his "New Ideas", he was reminded of the Wendy's fast-food slogan "Where's the beef?".

This was the same campaign where Jesse Jackson won several primaries as well, meaning that it resembles the triangular dynamic of this year's contest, with the irony, of course, being that Edwards is reprising Jackson's populist role in this year's remake.

To move from the realm of analysis and prediction to that of political consulting, it seems to me that Hillary's best move here is to do what seems to come least naturally to her, but which always seems to play well for her among voters. Namely, to let her defenses down. There's something disarming about her when she shows up without the armor, and she could really turn the loss of inevitability to her advantage if she embraced it as a chance to earn the nomination on the merits, and to make her case, simply and directly, of why she thinks she deserves it. That plus the institutional support she still has could go a long way towards fighting back the momentum Obama will generate coming out of the early primaries.

Most importantly, she should stay away from attacks, because it's only a matter of time before Edwards is going to get desperate and do the dirty work for her. I'd go so far as to say that she should come straight out and acknowledge what Obama has accomplished, both for his own campaign but also for the Party in general. Something along the lines of, Thanks for bringing them all to the dance, Barack, but this is why I'm more qualified to take it from here.

Unfortunately I won't be able to see the debates from over here, as I'm sure they'll be determinant for the polls leading into Tuesday's voting. But from the distant and dispassionate reaches of Paris, this still seems like it's a long way from over.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Saturday, January 5, 2008

Butter & Toast

So is Hillary Clinton toast? On the one hand, it's a wildly premature conclusion. She's still got money, infrastructure, loyalists, and plenty of campaign left to pull out the nomination. But on the other hand, it's not that far off the mark. Because to win the nomination, she'll have to resort to the very kind of machine politics that Obama is successfully building momentum against. Which means not all of Obama's supporters are necessarily in the Democratic column should Hillary be at the top of the ticket come November.

There's another scenario that no one's mentioned so far. It's very clear how strongly Obama is convinced that this is his moment, on a quasi-religious level. Which means he's not likely to fall into line at the end of the day and wait his turn like Bush 41 in 1980 or Al Gore in 1992. Which suggests two possibilities in the event he fails to win the Democratic nomination. Either he's been doing a lot of groundwork for Mike Bloomberg. Or else he runs as a third (or fourth?) party candidate in the general election.

One thing is almost certain. Should he not be rubbing elbows with John Roberts come January 21, 2009, Obama will launch a third party across the political landscape that we've come to think of as the center. Only he'll re-brand it as more active than just a refutation of the status quo, something along the lines of effective, realistic and responsible.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Saturday, January 5, 2008

How Deep Is The Bench

It occured to me, in thinking about the respective parties' primary campaigns, that what goes for the top of the ticket goes for the Veep slot as well. On the Democratic side, the list of not only viable but exciting potential VP's is three feet high and rising. Any of the frontrunners would do just fine, if they haven't taken out contracts on each other's lives come the convention. Biden would be a respectable choice. Then there's Jim Webb, Wesley Clark, Mark Warner. Russ Feingold could even make sense depending on the top of the ticket and the GOP candidate.

But when you look at the Republican side, the same thing applies to the Veep slot as to the Presidential nominee: there doesn't seem to be any viable possibilities. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Christine Todd Whitman and George Pataki. But the former is not too popular among the base, and the latter about as exciting as an ice cube melting. There's Arnold, of course, but he's a Constiutional amendment away from being eligible. So help me out. Is there anyone I'm missing?

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Friday, January 4, 2008

Advise & Consent vs. Deceit

Okay. So it's Friday afternoon, the day after the Iowa caucuses, and the entire media's focused on the Presidential campaign. Which can mean only one thing: time to scan the White House website. And after running a few Google searches on Richard Stickler, who the White House just designated Acting Asst Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, I'm glad I did.

Stickler, it seems, was named to replace John Pallasch, the previous Acting Asst Sec of Labor for MSH. Pallasch, it turns out, hadn't been on the job long himself, though, as he was designated the Acting Asst Sec of Labor for MSH on Tuesday. The man Pallasch was named to replace? You got it. Richard Stickler.

Now if you're asking yourself why President Bush replaced Stickler in the first place, it's very simple. Stickler was a recess appointment, first named to the job in October 2006. His nomination had been frozen in the Senate by Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy, in part because of his long management background in the mining industry, but also because of his poor record as a state regulator of mine safety. His recess appointment expired on Dec. 31, 2007. But because his poor record as a Federal regulator had done nothing to improve his chances of winning a new nomination hearing, President Bush just decided to play a game of musical chairs to keep him on the job.

After all the callous indifference President Bush and his administration have shown towards the Constitution, this seems almost comical by comparison. But when you think about it, the cynical, legalistic sleight of hand -- down to scrubbing the Dept. of Labor website of Stickler's bio this past week -- is really emblematic of the Bush imperial Presidency. He's got his Acting Asst Secretary, I suppose. His dignity, well, that's another story.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Friday, January 4, 2008

Quote Of The Day

"The reason I don’t worry about society is, nineteen people knocked down two buildings and killed thousands. Hundreds of people ran into those buildings to save them. I’ll take those odds every fucking day."

-- Jon Stewart, on why he's an optimist.

Posted by Judah in:  Quote Of The Day   

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Friday, January 4, 2008

Iran Digs In

As opaque and multi-polar as the Iranian regime is, what's often revealing is not just what gets said, but who says it. So this is pretty discouraging:

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Thursday that Iran sees "no benefit" in resuming ties with the United States at the moment but does not rule out a resumption of relations in the future.

In his most significant speech on foreign policy in several months, Khamenei also vowed that Iran would not halt sensitive work on its controversial nuclear programme as demanded by the West.

That would be bad enough for anyone hoping that Iran might decide to forego its uranium enrichment program as part of a negotiated settlement to the crisis. But it gets worse.

While it's important to remember that Iran's nuclear program was aggressively pursued under the rule of the moderates, it's also true that they have been increasingly critical of Ahmadinejad's antagonistic negotiating stance, which they claim has unnecessarily isolated Iran. As Supreme Leader, Khamenei functions as the final arbiter of such policy disputes, and it looks like he just arbited:

He angrily lashed out at moderates inside Iran who had cautiously suggested that the country should consider suspending enrichment to de-escalate the nuclear crisis.

"Some people challenge the system and the government over this and, in line with the enemy, seek to create disappointment. The nation should be watchful of such infiltrations."

Ahmadinejad has already had one of the outspoken critics of his nuclear policy -- a member of the nuclear negotiating team under Larijani -- arrested on charges of spying for England. And his parliamentary supporters have compared such criticism, which they call shadow diplomacy, to treachery. So it strikes me as noteworthy to see that sort of language turn up in Khamenei's speech.

Add this to the news I flagged the other day that Saeed Jalili -- Ahmadinejad's handpicked replacement of Larijani as head of the Iranian nuclear negotiating team -- just reshuffled the rest of the team to include even more hardliners, and it looks like the Iranian reaction to the NIE report has become increasingly clear.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Friday, January 4, 2008

Handicapping Iowa: The Results

Meanwhile, the results coming out of Iowa, at least on the Democratic side, are making me look like a pretty sharp bookmaker. Biden and Dodd are both already out, Richardson and Kucinich are both staying in, and Gravel is not only staying in, he's demanding a retraction and an apology from Keith Olbermann, who reported otherwise. Keep your eyes peeled for the Al Gore articles. They should be showing up over the weekend.

All in all, it's enough to make you wonder whether I shouldn't be in Vegas doing this for a living. Until you consider my picks for the GOP casualties, that is, which didn't pan out so well. Contrary to pre-caucus rumors, Fred Thompson has stayed in the race, as I predicted. Duncan Hunter, on the other hand, has announced he's going to keep plugging, and so far there's no word from Rudy, who looks unlikely to throw in the towel just yet. So I rimmed out on both of those prognostications.

As for my 19-1 longshot that Huckabee ends up speaking in tongues in front of a press conference and is forced to drop out, I've still got until this evening. Here's hoping.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Friday, January 4, 2008

The Accidental Coronation

After a week of flirting with the idea that Iowa wouldn't decide anything, the consensus in the press and among bloggers is that Obama's and Huckabee's victory have somehow decided something. I chalk that off to euphoria in Obama's case and surprise (pleasant or unpleasant depending on if you're a Dem or GOP) in Huckabee's. In about twenty-four hours, the emotion will wear off and it will become clear that the only thing that was decided in Iowa was Iowa. Both men's victories, in different ways, were the necessary opening acts if the scenario of a confused and lengthy primary campaign in both parties is to play out.

Meanwhile, while the almost universal reaction to Obama's speech last night was that he nailed it, my first impression on watching it was that the tone was off. I felt like I was watching a coronation instead of a primary victory speech. There's a whole lot of campaign left to start talking about history being made.

It also occured to me for the first time that when Obama talks about Republicans (you could almost hear the shudder run through the room), Democrats and Independents coming together, he's not really talking about bi-partisanship. He's talking about a one-party system, which is very different altogether.

Finally, as I wrote after the first time I saw a video of one of his speeches, there's a fundamental disconnect between the historic moments Obama references and the challenges we face today. I'm also not sure of how well he characterizes where we are today. Is America really disillusioned with government? Or with President Bush's government? In any case, not only do I take issue with comparing the contemporary political landscape with the American Revolution or the Civil Rights movement, I would argue that they aren't the sort of comparisons that reflect well on Obama's candidacy. Those were historic moments of stark and bitterly divisive choices, where unity and consensus were invoked to defend the forces of the status quo or even worse, reaction.

To be clear, by the way, I write all of this as someone leaning towards voting for Obama. Maybe that's why I'm fighting so hard against the sentimental and euphoric and, yes, manipulative appeals that both his campaign and his supporters tend to base a large part of their argument for his candidacy on. But after watching the video of his speech, I couldn't help but think back to the old Wendy's commercial that Walter Mondale so masterfully appropriated in 1984: Where's the beef?

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Network Next Time

It's a military truism that an army often prepares to fight the last war. According to this theory, a large part of what went wrong in post-invasion Iraq and Afghanistan was that the American military applied the lessons it learned from Vietnam and El Salvador in an environment where they did not especially apply. Now, although the end of hostilities can't be easily foreseen in either Afghanistan or Iraq, the operational lessons the American military will take out of those conflicts are becoming codified. For better or worse, these are the counterinsurgency tactics that will be applied in the next war.

One theme that seems to be emerging is that of networks, and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams being used in both Iraq and Afghanistan -- described in this Parameters/Army War College monograph -- are illustrative. Whether it's interdisciplinary (anthropologists working as part of military units engaged in humanitarian projects) or inter-agency (State Dept and Pentagon interface), the teams embody a networked, as opposed to parallel/vertical, approach.

It seems intuitively obvious that this is in some way a reflection of the medium with which the Iraq War will almost certainly be identified. In the same way that Vietnam was inseparable from the medium of television, down to the reflective black "screen" of its memorial, so the Iraq War will almost certainly be known as the "internet war".

And unlike the Vietnam War, where the flat dividor of the screen separated what was shown from those watching it, polarizing the choice between supporting or opposing the war, the Iraq War has instead spawned more nuanced networks. Sites like Small Wars Journal bridge the gap between military professionals and engaged civilians. The countless political blogs, while perhaps polarized along the faultlines of American political culture, nonetheless consist of participants, both analysts and commenters, tracing a tangled web of hyperlinks across the internet.

Significantly there is symmetry on both sides of the conflict. Both terrorists and insurgents have become skilled in the use of this medium that not long ago they condemned or outlawed. They now use the same networks for communication links and propaganda purposes that we use for political debate and dialogue. As if to remind us that the lessons we learn today will have to be adapted in turn to the circumstances of tomorrow.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Invisible Hand Of Violence

Whether you love Steven Metz or hate him, you've really got to read him. His take on 21st century insurgency is nothing short of paradigm-shifting. Unlike Cold War-era insurgencies, where there were effectively two sides with at times sponsors in each corner, contemporary insurgencies more closely resemble a violently contested, multiple-player market where the commodity is power, and where participants dream of monopoly, aim for dominance, and settle for market share and profitability, both figurative and literal. And as Metz explains, for a variety of reasons, as the conlict takes hold, it becomes to everyone's advantage to perpetuate it in a controlled form rather than to bring it to an end.

Metz argues, as he has before, that the danger of contemporary insurgency is less the threat of a definitive negative outcome, such as a hostile government being installed, so much as the second-degree effects of protracted conflict: population displacements, regional instability, and organized crime and terrorism, for instance. Instead of militarily defeating the insurgency, the goal becomes stability, whether through rapid power-sharing arrangements or more labor-intensive methods:

If, in fact, insurgency is not simply a variant of war, if the real threat is the deleterious effects of sustained conflict, and if such actions are part of a systemic failure and pathology where key elites and organizations develop a vested interest in the sustainment of the conflict, the objective of counterinsurgency support should be systemic reengineering rather than simply strengthening the government so that it can impose its will more effectively on the insurgents. (p. 30)

And since Metz is far from optimistic about the potential for longterm systemic re-engineering, it should come as no surprise that he argues for extremely limiting the contingencies that justify the use of counterinsurgency intervention, and those primarily in the context of a multi-lateral coalition.

It's a fascinating read, sure to change the way you think about the news coming out of Iraq, Afghanistan and other trouble spots around the globe.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Thursday, January 3, 2008

Best Practices

The Communist Party of China has published a list of "10 Taboos" that politicians should refrain from during provincial elections and bureaucratic reshufflings this January. A quick glance demonstrates how incompatible Chinese practice of democracy is with the American model:

  • using various ways to win support during the reshuffle, including making phone calls, conducting visits, holding banquets and giving gifts;
  • lobbying officials of higher rank to achieve promotion;
  • handing out pamphlets or giving souvenirs without authorization;
  • holding social activities in the name of reunions of classmates, townsmen or fellow soldiers to form cliques;
  • offering bribes in cash, gifts and stocks to buy government jobs;
  • taking bribes or attending banquets staged to drum up support during the reshuffle;
  • covering up or shielding illicit activities during the reshuffle;
  • spreading hearsay or using letters, leaflets, text messages or the Internet to vilify others;
  • using intimidation or deception to hamper and infringe upon the democratic rights of delegates or committee members;
  • arranging jobs for people or making a rush for somebody's promotion.

If you rule out lobbying, meet and greets, smear campaigns and petty corruption, how in the heck is someone supposed to get elected?

Posted by Judah in:  China   Politics   

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Thursday, January 3, 2008

Mitt Goes Negative In Iowa

Which really shouldn't come as any surprise. After all, long before he targeted Huckabee and McCain, Candidate Romney had already gone negative on Governor Romney, whose record he was forced to dismantle in order to viably compete for the GOP nomination. The guy's the only candidate in history who goes negative even when he goes positive.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Thursday, January 3, 2008

Guns And Butter

It's worth keeping in mind that, while American concern focuses on the twists and turns of the investigation into Benazir Bhutto's assassination and how secure Pakistan's nuclear installations are, Pakistanis are just as concerned about a national wheat shortage and electricity outages due to power supply not meeting demand. In other words, the daily challenges of life in a developing country.

With all the attention I give here on the site to geopolitical strategy, this is a good opportunity to point out that development aid can and should play an essential role in our national security posture. The fact that a country which has benefitted from $10 billion dollars in American aid over the past six years is experiencing a wheat shortage demonstrates a shortsightedness not only on the part of Islamabad, but also on the part of Washington.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Musical Chairs

I make it a habit, during media-dominating events like the Iowa caucuses or the Bhutto assassination, to keep an eye on some of last month's crises, like the Turkey-PKK conflict or the Iranian nuclear standoff. The idea being that some interesting things occur when the world's attention is diverted. And sure enough, today it was reported that Saeed Jalili, the man Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed to head Iran's nuclear negotiating team last month, just reshuffled the rest of the team to include two Ahmadinejad loyalists. The move is sure to harden the Iranian negotiating position in future rounds of talks.

In other news out of that part of the world, a region-wide game of musical chairs has broken out, only instead of chairs, they're playing for gas supplies. Apparently Turkmenistan closed off the pipelines ensuring Iran's domestic supply, which led Iran to severely limit its exports to Turkey to cover the shortfall. Turkmenistan blamed the shutdown on technical complications, but the entire episode brings into stark focus Iran's curious status as an energy importing country, despite sitting on oceans of gas and oil reserves.

Both developments play out against the backdrop of the "pipeline wars" going on in the region. Russia just sealed a deal for a pipeline linking Turkmenistan's gas supply to Europe, while China and India are busy lobbying for the right to develop Iranian gas and oil fields. Throw in Iran's recent pipeline deal with Pakistan and you've got the guiding logic behind the tactical alliance between Russia and Iran: the European gas market for Russia, the Asian market for Iran, even if both countries are in need of renewed investment to fully exploit their reserves.

But if their energy alliance incarnates the threat posed by the emerging multi-polar world to America's interests, it also represents the opportunities presented. In the same way that the end of the bi-polar world order removes the necessity of aligning with the United States, it also removes the necessity of aligning against us. In the context of an aggressive American posture, Russia and Iran seem like natural bosom buddies. But a shift in American policy towards either could just as easily provoke their latent rivalry.

Perhaps the biggest foreign policy mistake committed by the Bush administration, besides the Iraq War, is believing that we could afford to contain both Russia and Iran at the same time. One or the other, or one then the other. But not both at once.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Handicapping Iowa: The GOP

Following up on the previous post, it's time to turn to the GOP field. Who among the Republican bottom-feeders is likely to wind up a casualty come Friday morning, and who will hang on to clean the floor of the pond until the bitter end?

First up among likely casualties is Duncan Hunter. This one's pretty academic. Tom Tancredo's likely to get more votes than Hunter in Iowa, and Tancredo dropped out of the race a few weeks ago. Given that Hunter's polling just as bad in NH, he may try to stick it out for five days, but it's unlikely. With a flip-flopping panderer like Romney in the race, Hunter can bow out knowing that his outlandish, distasteful platform will be used for however many votes can be squeezed out of it, making him basically unnecessary. (Odds: 7-6 he's out.)

Next up is Fred Thompson. Sure he's polling respectably in Iowa, better than a number of second-tier candidates who will most certainly stay in the race. So what makes it the Common Wisdom that he's history come Friday? Five words: the New Hampshire weather forecast. It's cold up in the Granite State this time of year, and based on the polling data, Fred Thompson is within the margin of error of having to give back some votes come next Tuesday. Seeing as he's made no secret of the fact that he's not a natural born campaigner, most people are counting on him to bail out. They're forgetting one thing: the Hollywood writers strike. No scripts means no acting gigs, which makes the Presidential campaign Thompson's only gravy train for the moment. Barring a quick settlement to the strike, look for him to stick it out through NH, even if it means angling for a Leno appearance to thaw out the long johns. (Odds: 8-5 he stays in.)

Rudy Giuliani's entire campaign strategy is based on the logic of contesting neither Iowa nor New Hampshire, so that he can essentially survive his certain defeats in those two states and stage a comeback in Florida and the Super Tuesday states. Don't bet on it. If there's even the shadow of a clarification among the GOP frontrunners coming out of Iowa, Giuliani is going to bail. The biggest question is what he'll use as an excuse. Precedent would suggest a health issue, but I think he'll try to re-brand himself as a Wise Man and emphasize his concern for party unity. The reality, though, is that every day Giuliani stays in this thing, he smells more like a loser, which is bad for business. Add to that the fact that his business amounts to sealing plum deals for unsavory clients, the kind that don't stand up well to scrutiny, and the argument for getting out before any more skeletons clatter out of the NY City Hall closet becomes even stronger. (Odds: 9-5 he's out.)

Which leads me to my most longshot prediction on either side of the aisle. Late Friday afternoon, after spending most of the day in meditative seclusion, Mike Huckabee is going to call a news conference, ostensibly to explain away his disappointing finish in Iowa. There in front of the gathered national and international press, though, he will succomb to his enduring bitterness and engage in a foaming-at-the-mouth tirade against Mitt Romney until, realizing that the only way out of his monumental gaffe is a dose of the Holy Spirit, he'll begin speaking in tongues. Exit Huckabee. (Odds: 19-1 he's out.)

So there you have it, folks. If you make a bundle based on anything I've said, send some of it my way. And if you lose your shirt, make sure you don't catch a cold.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Handicapping Iowa: The Dems

Since the consensus seems to have converged towards the idea (which I first proposed last week) that we're never really ever going to find out just who the nominees for either party will be, I'm going to limit my predictions for tomorrow's Iowa caucuses to who is most likely to wake up Friday morning a casualty, starting with the Democrats.

Despite the fact that the only votes he's likely to get are a couple of hanging chads, I'm betting that Mike Gravel sticks it out. His campaign expenses amount to his bus ticket and hotel room, plus some chump change for the college techie he pays to do his YouTube mashups. Given that he's charging it all to a credit card company he's sure to burn for the bill, he's in this at least til the weather warms up. (Odds: 7-6 he stays.)

Same goes for Kucinich who, like most ugly men, can't seem to turn down an opportunity to show off his wife's good looks. The fact that she's almost certain to leave him before his withdrawal announcement hits the wires (asking herself as she does whether he was even in yet) makes a long hard slog all the more likely. Kucinich will stick around, if only to keep Dem debates from turning into the political version of Celebrity Death Match, until late spring. Count on a tell-all book from the former-Mrs. Kucinich detailing UFO sightings, vegan potlucks and other unseemly practices just in time to exploit the marketing opportunity of the nominating convention this summer. (Odds: 7-6 he stays.)

Chris Dodd, on the other hand, is back to the Senate come Friday morning. Given his dismal polling numbers in New Hampshire and the fact that he's playing Tweedle-dum to Biden's Tweedle-dee, he'd be hard-pressed to justify his reputation for fiscal responsibility were he to continue to spend the money he's collected for his so-called campaign. (Odds: 7-6 he's out.)

Which leads to the two toughest calls, Biden and Richardson. Biden looks like he could possibly pull enough votes in Iowa to justify a little more time in front of the microphones, and Lord knows, Joe Biden's never met a microphone he didn't like. But with the viability factor, it's possible Biden comes out of the caucuses looking like a redheaded stepchild, and given his anemic numbers in New Hampshire, the writing's more than on the wall. It is the wall. So I'm going to go out on a limb here and say Biden bogarts the spotlight come Friday with news of his withdrawal. (Odds: 7-4 he's out.)

Richardson's another tough call. He's ostensibly running for Secretary of State, and one of the requirements for the job of running American diplomacy is to be, what's the word I'm looking for? Oh, yeah. Diplomatic. And Bill Richardson's insistence on presenting himself as a candidate for President of the United States of America has the effect of making everyone who knows how outlandish such a proposition is uncomfortable. In an undiplomatic sort of way. So by all rights he should drop out, but he's polling as well in NH as he is in Iowa, and he's made it clear that he's not real good at taking a hint, so I'm going to cop out and say this one's too close to call. With a gun to my head I'd say he stays in at least through NH, and then I'd duck. (Odds: Pick 'em.)

So come Friday, Dodd and Biden are both out, with Richardson a definite maybe. Surprisingly, there's one Inconvenient Candidate that no one seems to be mentioning this week. So I'm going to put my bookmaking skills on the line and add an extra special prediction: at least two major newspapers run a feature before the NH primary on what the outcome in Iowa means for the odds of an Inconvenient Announcement.

Update: The GOP "Iowa Death Watch" betting line starts here.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

When The Well Runs Dry

If you've been feeling the credit crunch from the subprime crisis, you might take consolation in knowing that you're in good company. According to the BBC, Blackstone and GE lost out on a deal to purchase US mortgage provider PHH because the banks that had previously agreed to finance the deal backed out. If this doesn't qualify as the anecdotal image that captures the whole subprime debacle, I don't know what does.

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Engagement's Off

Nicolas Sarkozy raised eyebrows last month when he dispatched two top advisors to Damascus in an effort to engage Syria on resolving the Lebanese presidential standoff. Sarkozy claimed at the time that he'd gotten Washington's tacit approval on the initiative. The move was at best a gamble and at worst an act of desperation, trading off the enhanced prestige it would lend to Syria for a face-saving outcome to France's months-long effort to mediate the crisis.

In the end, the continued failure to arrive at an agreement -- which this week led to a tit-for-tat series of declarations from Paris and Damascus announcing the suspension of cooperation -- amounts to a confirmation that Syria's influence in the region can't be wished away. On the other hand, those who have criticized the Bush administration for failing to engage Syria (and I count myself among that group) need to acknowledge that engagement is a tactic, not a strategy, and that for it to work, there needs to be willingness on both sides of the table to reach an agreement.

Meanwhile Lebanon remains without a President.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   La France Politique   The Middle East   

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Pakistani Rumor Mill

It's worth noting that in addition to the outlandish rumor I mentioned here about Benazir Bhutto being assassinated by "the latest laser beam technology, being used by the American forces in Iraq", there's also one now making the rounds about American military forces getting set to "takeover" Pakistan's nuclear sites. The first rumor was credited to PPP sources, but the second, while launched by a British newspaper, was lent the credibility of being denied, so to speak, by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry. Which suggests to me that the anti-American card, one that obviously works against Bhutto's legacy, is about to be played in Pakistani domestic politics.

Posted by Judah in:  Pakistan   

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Pakistan Clarifications

Via Paul Kiel at TPMmuckraker comes the Pakistani government's clarification that when a spokesman apologized for the claim that Benazir Bhutto was killed by colliding with her car's sunroof -- as opposed to gunshot wounds -- it was meant as a correction of tone, not of content. Meanwhile, the head of the Pakistani Election Commission officially announced that legislative elections would be postponed until February 18. And the Pentagon took advantage of the prevailing mood of international goodwill towards Islamabad to announce that it had awarded a $500 million contract to Lockheed Martin to provide Pakistan with eighteen F-16 fighter jets. Said Richard Boucher, Asst. Sec. of State for South Asian Affairs:

"The F-16 programme is a Pakistani purchase, their money, they’re buying them...And our foreign military finance, our military assistance goes for different purposes and is not involved at this point in the F-16 sales."

Now that that's all cleared up...

Update: According to breaking news reports, Pervez Musharraf just announced the imminent arrival of a British team from Scotland Yard to investigate the circumstances surrounding Bhutto's assassination.

Late Update: The boys from Scotland Yard really have their work cut out for them, because according to unidentified PPP sources cited by the Pakistani daily The Nation, Benazir Bhutto was killed by neither bullets nor bombs but by a laser beam of the sort used by American forces in Iraq. The shooter and suicide bomber were simply decoys for a third assailant. No word on whether any flying saucers were involved.

Posted by Judah in:  Pakistan   

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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Pakistan News Digest

Some noteworthy developments in Pakistan in the aftermath of Benazir Bhutto's assassination. After taking a pretty brutal press beating for its claims that Bhutto died of head trauma caused by colliding with her car's sunroof, the Pakistani government has now reversed course and retracted its statement. The move might be an effort to improve the government's credibility in the face of two announcements almost certain to further inflame the country's volatile political situation. First, a Bhutto aide claims that she was poised to present a visiting American Congressional delegation with smoking gun evidence of government efforts to rig upcoming elections. And second, those elections are almost certain to be postponed until February at the earliest.

Meanwhile, in a sign of reassuring continuity, Pakistan and India exchanged a list of civilian nuclear sites, as they have done every year since 1992 as part of a MAD-type pact not to target them in the event of hostilities. I think Matthew Yglesias made this point last week, but I can't find the link and it's worth repeating. If the US really wants to encourage Pakistan's efforts against Islamic extremists, we should do everything in our power to support the nascent detente between Pakistan and India. The less threatened Pakistan feels by its powerful neighbor, the more energy and resources it can devote to counter-terrorism.

Posted by Judah in:  Pakistan   

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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Subprime, Peking Edition?

I don't know enough about the subject to offer any analysis, but this seems noteworthy:

Central Huijin Investment Co. (Huijin), an investment arm of the Chinese government, signed a contract with the China Development Bank (CDB) onday to inject 20 billion U.S. dollars into the state-owned policy bank.

The investment, ratified by the State Council, would sharply raise the CDB's capital adequacy and improve its risk-prevention capability, said a press release by the People's Bank of China, the nation's central bank.

Add this to the Fed and ECB's credit injections, the Chinese forex equity injections into Blackstone and Morgan Stanley, and the Singapore forex equity injection into Merrill Lynch, and that makes roughly $80 billion in cash that the world's central banks have pumped into the global credit market in the past weeks to months. Not all of that can be to cover housing foreclosures in backwater American real estate markets.

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   

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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Tie Goes To The Runner

Adam Nagourney raises the possibility that I mentioned a few days ago, namely what happens if after Iowa, New Hampshire and Super Tuesday, neither Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama nor John Edwards can claim a decisive mandate for the Democratic nomination? Iowa's looking like a three-way tie, making New Hampshire impossible to call. Nagourney doesn't attempt an answer, but the implicit suggestion is that the Democrats' unusually strong field of top-tier candidates might come back to haunt them, by creating more confusion than clarity, at least in the short run.

If so, would it be a political confusion or a policy confusion, or both? In other words, is there something about the three candidates themselves that define faultlines in the Democratic Party, the way, for instance, McCain and Huckabee do for the GOP? Judging by the three candidates' images -- Clinton the centrist hawk, Obama the centrist idealist and Edwards the throwback workingman's hero -- there's certainly some suggestion of a broader identity crisis at play.

But everything I've read about their platforms (which I haven't dived into becase I'm a lazy, wonk-averse voter who tends to downplay the significance of campaign white papers) suggests that just the opposite is true. That is, to varying degrees, the three represent a real convergence of Democratic progressivism, due in part to the Party's confidence about its electoral chances this year.

Obviously, ideological convergence can create just as many problems as ideological tension, as the election eventually boils down to a question of style over substance. All of which makes me feel ready for another prediction. Should Obama feel at any time like he can't win the Democratic nomination but that he hasn't really lost it, he'll go ahead and run in the general election as an independent. The question then becoming whether Bloomberg dives in as well, or joins him as his Veep.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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