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Friday, September 24, 2004  
A whisper of the old school between the leaders of two antagonistic nuclear powers. Meeting for the first time, newly installed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf exchanged personal gestures that seem (to me, anyway) both vaguely archaic and completely appropriate:

Musharraf apparently floored the Indian Prime Minister by presenting him with a painting of the school Singh studied in village Gah, now in present-day Pakistan. He also gave him a photocopy of Singh's marks card from school, joking that Singh had scored better than him in all subjects, except in mathematics. Singh, in turn, quoted bits if his favourite Urdu poetry to make the point that India and Pakistan have to seize the moment to make peace.

The delicate touches here are what interest me about the story. By a quirk of history, Musharraf was born in India, and Singh was born in what is now Pakistan. In this context, great thought was given to making the gestures personal, to both emphasize the shared history of the two nations and build personal bridges between the two men as representatives of these frequent antagonists. The choice of Urdu was a classical diplomatic gesture, as Urdu is the national language of Pakistan, and the common speech of millions of Indian Muslims. By speaking in Urdu, and reciting a personal favorite poem, Singh touched upon a shared heritage, a sense of what has been lost between the nations through their religious and territorial rivalry. Musharraf's gesture more directly invoked the same shared history, inviting the deep and ineluctibly individual emotions of childhood in to color and deepen the historical moment of their meeting. The two men met in person for an hour, alone, with no staff, no recording or notes, just two men in a hotel room, examining a painting of a rural school.

I suppose it is possible that all of this was carefully orchestrated to strike just this chord in closet sentimentalists like me, but I'm not sure. Both of these leaders are hardheaded, modern politicians and technocrats, who are where they are by dint of a political process just as cynical and bare-knuckled as our own (if not more so). It is also possible that this type of exchange requires the participation of an autocrat like Musharraf, who is naturally situated to make and receive personal gestures directly on behalf of the nation he controls.

Regardless of its provenance, there is a resonance here between the individuals and the nations for which they speak that is undeniable, considering the hopelessly tangled legacies of history, family, religion and violence that bind these countries. In simpler terms, the exchange gains value because it furthers the classical diplomatic goal of building common ground. This is not lost from Western diplomacy - I think we saw some of this in many of Clinton's diplomatic interactions, like his famous binges with Helmut Kohl, as well as in Bush's early contacts with Vladimir Putin - but it is rare, and never quite so unabashed as this example.


Tuesday, September 21, 2004  
I guess they do have a plan, after all.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cast it a little differently this week, at a news conference in Missouri. Iraq is making progress, he said. "At some point the Iraqis will get tired of getting killed and we'll have enough of the Iraqi security forces that they can take over responsibility for governing that country," he said.

Via Kos.


Friday, September 17, 2004  
Same as the old boss. Well, DC has voted and in a sort of perfect storm of low voter turnout (no mayoral election, two council members running unopposed, no concomitant national election) the DC City Council now has two new faces (At-Large Councilman Kwame Brown and Ward 7 Councilman Vincent C. Gray) and one old, querulous one: The Mayor himself, Marion Barry. See here for a good analysis of the whos, whys and wherefores of the various council races.*

Godless communist Max Sawicky unabashedly celebrates the return of Hizzoner, using him as a club to bash the "royalist" washington post and the current Williams administration:

The good people of the District of Columbia ignored the economic royalist editorialists of the Washington Post and handed a Democratic primary victory -- close facsimile to formal election in November -- to former Mayor and former(?) recreational drug user/playa Marion Barry. Da Mayor will occupy a seat on the City Council.

MaxSpeak declares unequivocally that Marion drunk is better than those other people or the current mayor sober. The Council features a pantheon of do-nothing non-entities, with the possible exception of Kathy Paterson. The mayor's administration is corrupt and incompetent, except in making sure the holders of municipal debt get paid on time. As mayor, Marion did not steal. He is not wealthy or leaching off the public till, like some other ex-office holders.

[ . . . ]

The trains don't run on time. My subway line has been screwed for two weeks now. This morning my commute took twice as long as it should have -- an hour. The public schools stink. The public charter schools stink too. The water has had doo-doo and lead in it. An arsonist has been running around setting fires -- it seems like two years now. The Green Party's candidate for mayor appears in public on stilts and got less than 200 votes. Andrew Sullivan is permitted to reside here.

Er, okay, Mr. Sawicki. I've got good news and bad news.

The good news -
Barry was, at one time, the best mayor this city has ever had (sorry, Walter Washington). In the late 70s and early 80's, Marion Barry forged a partnership between the city government and the commercial development sector that was unique at the time. He was able to pull it off and stay in office to see it through because of his credibility with the poor black majority of the city. His program worked like a charm, triggering and laying the foundation for the downtown building boom that is responsible for the survival of the DC tax base through some of the city's worst years of middle-and upper-class flight. Without Barry, the city would have been stripped of commercial assets and left to die two decades ago.

The bad news -
Sorry Max, anyone who lived anywhere near DC in the late 1980's will tell you that the later Barry administration was among the most corrupt municipal entities in the nation. Many of Barry's closest cronies were jailed as a result of under-the-table sole sourcing of district contracts and straight-up graft. You are right that Barry was never convicted, but a number of federal investigations into his activities were dropped when he was convicted of the drug charges and left office. Even if you think Barry himself is pure as the driven snow (so to speak), the fact that he allowed such rampant corruption within the highest levels of his administration makes it clear that as he declined, his administration of the city was nakedly incompetent.

The unavoidable conclusion -
The Barry that is going to take Ward 8 is the last vestiges of the late-80's Barry, tottering back into politics because he has failed at everything else, and the gig pays 90k a year.

The other unavoidable conclusion -
The real tragedy here is that Ward 8 will continue to be isolated and neglected by those managing the city, until they notice that there's some pretty nice real estate out there.

The other other unavoidable conclusion -

Max Sawicki is something of a knee-jerk contrarian. I mean, who are we kidding? The Ward 8 voters did not vote for Barry because they believe that his election will institute a wave of good government, better schools, and more efficient train service. They went for Barry because doing so is the easiest way to erect a massive middle finger pointed straight at the rest of the city that is swanning along pretending Anacostia doesn't exist. Is this reasonable? Yes. Does Ward 8 have a legitimate beef? Absofuckinglutely they do. Is Marion Barry the answer to any of the problems that Mr. Sawicki bemoans as inconveniencing his DC existence?

*link via Yglesias.


Wednesday, September 15, 2004  
New Orleans is battening down the hatches for Ivan, so good luck to everyone down there. I realize that hurricanes tend to curveball through the gulf, arcing E-NE once they clear the Keys, but it's hard to look at this satellite loop and not conclude that New Orleans is kind of fucked.

Oh, and as the husband of a teacher, can I just say that this sucks (via Pandagon).

UPDATE: Looks like the Crescent City continues its charmed existence, and the gulf curveball effect took over in time. Pity about Alabama, though.


Tuesday, September 14, 2004  
There may be no athiests in foxholes, but there are certainly some sarcastic absurdists in there. Apparently, the Army utilizes a form of punishment called Reinforcement by Indorsement (RBI), which is essentially a 1000-word essay written by a soldier explaining and apologizing for some error in judgment, failure of discipline, or the like. You know, like they made you do in 4th grade. Click here to read one soldier's thoughts on having forgotten to bring all required equipment to the mess hall. I especially enjoy that the last word is scratched out, as if he wasn't going to give his Sergeant one more fucking word than he was entitled to.

via The Strategy Page.


The other shoe drops in Russia. From the Washington Post today:
MOSCOW, Sept. 13 -- President Vladimir Putin announced plans Monday for a "radically restructured" political system that would bolster his power by ending the popular election of governors and independent lawmakers, moves he portrayed as a response to this month's deadly seizure of a Russian school.

Under his plan, Putin would appoint all governors to create a "single chain of command" and allow Russians to vote only for political parties rather than specific candidates in parliamentary elections. Putin characterized the changes as enhancing national cohesion in the face of a terrorist threat, while critics called them another step toward restoring the tyranny of the state 13 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

"Under current conditions, the system of executive power in the country should not just be adapted to operating in crisis situations, but should be radically restructured in order to strengthen the unity of the country and prevent further crises," Putin said during a televised meeting with cabinet ministers and governors. "Those who inspire, organize and carry out terrorist acts seek to bring about a disintegration of the country, to break up the state, to ruin Russia."

His plans must go through parliament, but the Kremlin controls more than two-thirds of the legislature directly and two other political parties quickly endorsed the ideas. Even the governors, who could lose their jobs, surrendered, either welcoming the plans or remaining silent.

"It's the beginning of a constitutional coup d'etat," said Sergei Mitrokhin, a former parliamentary leader from the liberal Yabloko party. "It's a step toward dictatorship."

A pretty substantial step, it seems to me. Kevin Drum notes an appropos similarity here; I laughed, but not much. This shit just ain't funny.

My limiting the elections to voting only for parties, Putin is establishing the same similacrum of democracy as existed in the Soviet era. As we have discussed before in this space, Russia's opposition parties have been beaten, persecuted, and shut out of the national media, and exist in a feeble twilight of marginal relevance.

It's worth noting, however, that Putin is using the Beslan massacre to justify all of this, and that Putin's actions are eerily reminiscent of Bush's government by first draft in the wake of 9/11, arrogating more power to the executive, removing certain exercises of power from public oversight by the other branches of government. (People forget that under the system of checks and balances, the people are represented by whichever branch is acting as the check on the expanding power of another. Judges are appointed, yes, but removing, say, wiretap warrants from the review authority of the federal courts is removing them from public review in the person of a federal judge.)

What's that you say? I've got my tinfoil hat on a little too tight? I'm getting a bit shrill? Bush didn't dissolve Congress or start appointing new governors, so why should I get my panties in a bunch? Granted, he didn't dissolve Congress. But American democracy is huge, prosperous and two hundred years old. Russia's democracy is about fifteen years old. We have a lot more systemic resistance to the terrified lashings of a nascent autocrat.


Friday, September 10, 2004  
On Obsidian Wings a couple of days ago, right fielder Sebastian Holsclaw posted a piece captioned "Culture and the War," which argued that removal of Saddam Hussein was essential, because, inter alia, it helped to combat an extremely dangerous perception of the United States as weak and essentially susceptible to intimidation and violent tactics. It was a well-written post, and worth quoting at some length:

One cultural factor which is often ignored by Democrats in the debates about the War on Terrorism is the idea that some acts which would be interpreted as merciful in the West are interpreted as weak and invite further attacks by many in the Middle East.

A cult of personality rose around Saddam Hussein almost immediately after his invasion of Kuwait was turned back. This occurred despite the fact that his invasion was condemned by the UN, the international community, and many Arab states. He became a hero because he battled the US and survived. Objectively he survived only because the US chose not to kill him. But in the Arab world his survival was explained in terms of American weakness of resolve. In the myth that became more important than reality, he survived because a resolute Arab leader had stood up to the US and had exposed the moral weakness of the alleged superpower. According to that storyline the US wasn’t willing to risk fighting for any long period of time. Bloody the US, and it would run because it couldn’t stand the sight of American bodies in a war.

This concept was reinforced throughout the Middle East after the US took no serious response to Saddam’s attempt to assassinate Bush I. It was further reinforced by the American retreat from Mogadishu and the cruise missile only response to the embassy bombings.

What we see as proportional response looks different through the lens of many Middle Eastern cultures. Which would argue for a heavy-handed response to terrorist attacks and non-compliant regimes. On the other hand, it is also true that some military responses can cause a population to radicalize, especially if our actions are seen as hitting principally the innocent. Since we don’t want to ever be in a position where winning the war depends on genocide, we have to be attentive to the reactions of innocent Middle Eastern inhabitants.

This leads to the balancing insight: we must be seen to be ruthless to our enemies—especially their leaders. If we fail to do so, we risk radicalizing some on the borders of opinion by allowing our enemies the appearance of being able to win. We risk extending the myth that America can be bloodied without serious consequence. We must strive to rhetorically and physically separate them from other inhabitants of the Middle East so that we can avoid further radicalization.

This is one of the many reasons why removing Saddam from power was so important. In the cultural context of the War on Terrorism, he was one of the key proofs that the United States was not willing to take risks in defeating its enemies. Even though the full force of the West was never brought to bear against Saddam, his survival was interpreted just as if we had spent all of our energy trying to get rid of him. So long as he was able to maintain power, despite invading Kuwait, despite attempting to assassinate Bush, and despite all the attempts to hobble his government, he was a constant illustration of the ‘fact’ that the West in general and the US in specific were unable to deal with dogged resistance—especially if the resistance were brutal.

This is a myth that cannot survive if we are to win the war on terrorism. This is the myth that allows our enemies to wrongly believe that their terrorist tactics can help them acheive their aims.

It's important to note that this bit of armchair Orientalism has some real historical support. Prior to the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam was widely perceived as an unstable, anti-Muslim tyrant, and a real danger to his Arab neighbors, many of whom joined the coalition to drive him from power in 1991: Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates (and, of course, Kuwait). The failure of that effort greatly raised Saddam's prestige throughout the Arab world, and he began to appear on wall posters and in the incendiary speeches of many militants (though this argument does not figure prominently in bin Laden's discussions of the subject of American weakness; he tends to focus more on retreats from Beirut and Somalia). Only Kuwait joined the 2003 coalition (joining such luminaries as Palau and the Solomon Islands).

However, what trips me up when I consider this argument is a balancing question that Sebastian has not really considered: When does showing strength shade into that other touchstone of middle eastern rage, the specter of colonialism? Underlying Sebastian's point is an objective - to stop people from choosing terrorism as a means of obtaining their goal, or, as SH puts it, "wrongly believ[ing] that their terrorist tactics can help them achieve their aims."

Going into Iraq may have shown real strength, and taking out Saddam may have powerfully rebutted a primary argument in the case for American weakness. However, having banked that benefit, we still have to figure out what to do with this country we now possess. Once we occupy a country, there are only two possibilities: One, we stay forever; two, we don't.

If the former, regardless of how benign such an occupation might be (and the current occupation is, unavoidably, not terribly benign right now), it will create the same resentment and violent resistance that all military/colonial presences have created throughout history. If the latter, then we need to find a way out of Iraq that does not simply reinforce the same perception of weakness and inconstancy.

There is a narrow band of potential successful outcomes in a wide spectrum of disasters. It is, of course, possible that once U.S. troops depart, Iraq will emerge as a democratic, secular democracy, where power is held by civil rather than religious institutions. I fervently hope for this outcome, and I feel a blossoming of that hope every time someone like Ali Sistani sides with us over the zealots and violent insurgents that are killing our troops.

But my hope is not really based on anything other than an overwhelming desire for a particular outcome. From what I can see, a host of conflicts are simply being postponed by the putative antagonists until the U.S. troops get out of the way. For example, it certainly seems possible that the Iraqi government, once the steering hand of the U.S. Army is removed, will peacefully evolve to a theocratic end-state, with little real democratic participation. More frightening, a civil war along either ethnic lines, religious lines, or both is still a very active possibility once we are gone, especially given the renewed interest Iran is taking in the situation.

I suppose that my real dispute with Sebastian here is that he hasn't made the case that taking out Saddam was the only way to rebut the case for American weakness, or even a particularly good way, considering that we have created the substantial possibility of seeming weaker than ever once we withdraw, whether that withdrawal comes next year, or next decade.


Wednesday, September 01, 2004  
Compare and contrast.

George Bush, August 27, 2004:
"I don't think you give timelines to dictators. I'm confident that over time this* will work - I certainly hope it does."

George Bush, March 17, 2003:
"Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict, commenced at a time of our choosing."

* From the same Times article:
"Mr. Bush also took issue with Mr. Kerry's argument, in an interview at the end of May with The New York Times, that the Bush administration's focus on Iraq had given North Korea the opportunity to significantly expand its nuclear capability. Showing none of the alarm about the North's growing arsenal that he once voiced regularly about Iraq, he opened his palms and shrugged when an interviewer noted that new intelligence reports indicate that the North may now have the fuel to produce six or eight nuclear weapons.

He said that in North Korea's case, and in Iran's, he would not be rushed to set deadlines for the countries to disarm, despite his past declaration that he would not "tolerate'' nuclear capability in either nation. He declined to define what he meant by "tolerate.'"

And, in case you were wondering: (a) no, I'm not suggesting that Bush should be threatening North Korea with immediate invasion; (b) yes, I know North Korea has nukes. So what. He applies the same analysis to Iran, and we don't know if Iran does. Besides which, on the eve of war, he was still suggesting that Iraq might have them, and used that possibility to make the case. (c) he shrugged? This is the guy the right calls a serious and steadfast foreign policy thinker?, and (d) yeah, okay, it's a cheap shot, but seriously, how does Kerry become the flip-flopper in this race?


While there has been a lot of moaning among the lefty blogs about the speeches at the Republican convention, to be honest, it doesn't really bother me that much. We had ours, they get theirs. Nothing to be done, so might as well just get on with it. Stuff like this, while certainly seedy and definitely reminiscent of the vicious, snarky political thug that Giuliani was* before his 9/11 canonization, is really just not that big a deal. It's a convention speech, it's red meat, it's inevitable, just endure it like a bad smell until the elevator doors open and we can all get back to business.

If nothing else, this has changed the subject from the SwiftVets thing, and it might be hard for them to recapture everyone's attention. But that might be wishful thinking.

*I worked on Ruth Messinger's campaign to unseat Rudy in '97. A doomed jihad if ever there was one, but my god. The tactics Giuliani used (the press intimidation, the illegal use of workfare recipients to distribute campaign literature, and worse) were shockingly dirty and heavyhanded. The rhetoric of the Giuliani campaign was brazenly dishonest and some of the harshest I have ever heard, mocking Ms. Messinger's figure and age (from Giuliani's campaign manager), characterizing her (by proxy, of course - a Staten Island councilman) as the "fag's candidate" because of her lesbian daughter, and oh, god, much more and much worse). Rudy Giuliani is a slimeball and political hitman of the highest order. He won by 14 points.


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