Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Where's the Black Knight?

I hadn't thought that David Brooks was a Monty Python fan. You probably hadn't, either. Yet there is a distinctly python-esque argument being made by Brooks in his latest NYTimes article.

But don't take my word for it. See for yourself. Anybody who's seen "Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail" knows about the scene with John Cleese as Lancelot and Michael Palin as a king. Cleese just slaughtered half the wedding guests, completely randomly and for no good reason, and Palin (salivating over the prospect of making good with a Knight of the Round Table) says "this is a happy occasion! Let's not get into arguments about who killed who."

Take it away, Brooks:
And for the past 10 days, all of Washington has been kibitzing over the contents of Bob Woodward's latest opus, which largely concerns events that happened between 2001 and 2003. Did President Bush eye somebody else's dinner mint at a meeting? Was Colin Powell in the loop on Iraq? When did Bush ask the Pentagon to draw up war plans?

This is crazy. This is like pausing during the second day of Gettysburg to debate the wisdom of the Missouri Compromise. We're in the midst of the pivotal battle of the Iraq war and le tout Washington decides not to let itself get distracted by the ephemera of current events...

What's going on is obvious. The first duty of proper Washingtonians is to demonstrate that they are smarter than whomever they happen to be talking about. It's quite easy to fulfill this mission when you are talking about the past. It's child's play for a salad-course solon who spent the entire 1990's ignoring foreign affairs to condemn the administration piously for not focusing like a laser beam on Al Qaeda on Aug. 6, 2001.

It's harder to be a smart aleck about the future, especially in regards to Najaf and Falluja, where none of the choices are good ones. Do the Baathists win a victory every day they hold off our siege? Or if we take them out now, do we undermine Sistani? We Klieg Light Kierkegaards will give you the right answer — three years from now, after whatever option the president takes has been judged and found wanting.
"This is a war! We were attacked! Let's not get into an argument about who neglected what!". Just like Palin's, it's a transparent attempt to try to avoid blame (and explanation) for the actions of the past by using the distraction of the present. It's a nice game, because it means you can get away with whatever you want, as long as you wait long enough to claim "that's in the past, it doesn't matter". I'm sure Slobodon Milosovich would like to do the same thing, but that ain't going to fly, either.

(It's also a nice little distraction because there's really nothing official Washington can do about the situation in Iraq. It's a military issue, out of their hands. It's like bringing up the weather, except far safer for a Bush administration that play the old game of making things seem better in the short term, then trust that the long-term damage is forgotten..)

In this case, though, it's particularly perverse, because the books are really addressing the situation that we're in right now. Brooks is dodging around the "why" question, when the entire reason why the Woodward book and the 9/11 commission are important is because they get to the heart of the reason why Iraq has gone so terribly wrong- the tendentiousness and thoughtlessness of this administration and the President it serves. That Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz and others neglected Al Qaeda in order to bring about their fever dream of an America-friendly Iraq is obvious enough, but you can't convict without evidence, and these things are evidence. Which David Brooks, and his political masters, desperately don't want people to realize.

Monday, April 26, 2004

Close Call

A Massive potential chemical attack by Al Qaeda was averted in Jordan today. "The plot would have been more deadly than anything al Qaeda has done before, including the September 11 attacks, according to the Jordanian government", says CNN.

Well, maybe. Or maybe it was intended to be a huge conventional attack; the main chemical agent in question, sulfuric acid, can apparently be used both as a blister agent or as an accelerant for a conventional explosion. Then again, according to a Jordanian scientist, the intent was to create a "chemical cloud".

Regardless, it looks like Al-Zarqawi was behind it.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

The problem of attribution

In the L.A. Weekly, David Ehrenstein is laying out the problem with "unnamed sources". He's unimpressed with their history (thinking their importance overblown) and brings up one writer whose reliance on them has affected the recent war: Judith Miller.

“It’s all PR,” scoffs Nation scribe and author Eric Alterman, who, on tour for his most recent work (The Book on Bush), speaks excitedly of a public attuned to Bush administration outrages and eager to hear from a press involved in something other than perpetual fealty to the powers that be. “The Times has apologized for Jayson Blair, but it hasn’t apologized for Judith Miller!” says Alterman. “That I’d like to see!”

Miller, a Pulitzer Prize winner of until recently no small journalistic repute has long been considered a large feather in the Times’ cap. But her reporting on Iraq, in which claims concerning Saddam Hussein’s apparently mythical weapons of mass destruction were made through her by both a clearly identified Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and an unidentified man in a baseball cap “standing off in the distance,” who military “sources” had told Miller had told them about them has been widely — and deservedly — criticized. So much so that a recent Times profile of Chalabi (“Chalabi, Nimble Exile, Searches for Role in Iraq,” March 26) was assigned to a less-than-completely-impressed Dexter Filkins. (Miller did not respond to an e-mail seeking her side of the story.)
What strikes me about this issue is that it's roughly equivalent to the anonymity/pseudonymity issue, with a roughly similar answer. Unnamed sources do have their place; there are cases where information must come out, but it would be dangerous for names to be named. That said, whenever an unnamed source is used all involved must recognize that it could very well be complete falsehood and treat it with a certain amount of caution. Just as there's a benefit to be found from "namelessness", there's a price, and that price is having everything you say questioned.

Ehrenstein makes a good point when he quotes Russ Baker saying "Miller's formula...goes like this: Promise the bosses at your paper that you will get scoops, then cut deals with highly placed individuals to serve as their conduit to the front pages". He's right when he declaims the over-reliance on unnamed sources and the damage it's done. The problem, though, is not merely that reporters aren't being skeptical enough, but that those to whom reporters are reporting are often not skeptical enough. When people hear "unnamed source", they should take it with a grain of salt, and have this danger pointed out to them. Yes, Watergate affected opinions, but that was a long time ago.

Unfortunately, however, it looks like since that doesn't serve anybody's interests, it's not going to happen. Well, it may serve the interests of the Union...

but it's been a long time since that's really mattered.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004


Well, Atrios has moved from the occasional phone-in on Air America to guest co-hosting.

And he's not bad.

I'm extraordinarily glad that he's been able to do this, but I worry whether the blog is going to suffer if his non-blog media efforts grow. That hasn't happened yet, as a quick scan of the blog will show, but the possibility is there.

Monday, April 19, 2004


I've found a counterpoint argument to the Billmon one about the Israeli pullout that I referenced below. It takes a much different position, arguing that

Over the past three years a new political realism has slowly and painfully emerged on the Israeli centre-right. In some ways it is akin to the revolution in consciousness among South African National Party leaders in the final years of apartheid. In the eyes of Israeli right-wingers, nothing has seemed to work for Israel over the past decade: neither negotiation nor repression. Disoriented and frustrated, Mr Sharon, his deputy, Ehud Olmert, and other senior figures have at last begun to internalise reality: Israel, they now understand, faces imminent defeat in its long demographic struggle to secure a Jewish majority between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean. The settlement project of the past generation has failed in its central objective. Israel can no longer hope to sustain her position in the occupied territories without a sacrifice of blood and treasure that is simply unacceptable to most of her citizens...

...His enemies complain that he wants at most to find a way out of Gaza and that he has already exacted his price from the US: recognition of the permanence of many Israeli settlements in the West Bank. A closer look at the wording of the formal agreement between Sharon and Bush (which, by the way, will bind any successor to Sharon, should he fall from power in the coming weeks) suggests a different conclusion. There is no foreclosing of the position on the future border between Israel and a Palestinian state. That remains to be settled by negotiation. The roadmap has been accelerated rather than abandoned. One thing has been foreclosed: any remaining forlorn hope among Israeli ultra-nationalists of pursuing the dream of populating the whole of the West Bank with Jews.
Read the whole thing: it's an interesting take on the issue, and implies a more nuanced position on the part of the Israeli right than I (and many others) had often given them credit for.

On the other hand, it may still be cover, and negotiation may still be unlikely. The "we're punishing the Palestinians" rhetoric that preceded this move does seem to imply that. The author implies that settlers wouldn't want to shoot at the IDF; at the same time the IDF may not want to dislodge settlers. It's also unlikely that these tactics will decrease tensions in the region much. It's still worth considering, however, and the shouting of base talking points that surrounds this issue rarely affords that leisure.

Pandagon sums it up

During the Bush years, I feel as if we're almost running behind the true political depravity. We find out Bush lied, and we say it, and by the time that the full-throated denunciations of anyone who dares advance that rather obvious truth begin, we find out something worse. The leadership in the occupation of Iraq was completely incompetent. Bush focused more on brush-clearing than terrorism before 9/11. And now, this.

We don't have to peer in the dusty corners for dark secrets these days. Every time we turn around, there's something new, bright and shiny and just plain wrong in our face.
I agree entirely with what Jesse said, and the worst part is that this is actually an excellent strategy when dealing with American politics, thanks to the relatively short memory of the American people and press when it comes to non-sexual scandals. They just have to hold things off long enough for something new to come down the pipe, and the "he said/she said" morass of faux-"objectivism" will obscure all.

Saturday, April 17, 2004


What can one say to this? When the stories get out about what actually went on inside Fallujah, if they're even half as disturbing as this story implies, the consequences will be devastating.

It's long, so I'll just give you the conclusion:

And the satellite news says the cease-fire is holding and George Bush says to the troops on Easter Sunday that, “I know what we’re doing in Iraq is right.” Shooting unarmed men in the back outside their family home is right. Shooting grandmothers with white flags is right? Shooting at women and children who are fleeing their homes is right? Firing at ambulances is right?

Well George, I know too now. I know what it looks like when you brutalise people so much that they’ve nothing left to lose. I know what it looks like when an operation is being done without anaesthetic because the hospitals are destroyed or under sniper fire and the city’s under siege and aid isn’t getting in properly. I know what it sounds like too. I know what it looks like when tracer bullets are passing your head, even though you’re in an ambulance. I know what it looks like when a man’s chest is no longer inside him and what it smells like and I know what it looks like when his wife and children pour out of his house.
What else is there to say?

Friday, April 16, 2004

Japanese Hostages Freed

Excellent news: the Japanese hostages have been released. Unfortunately, more may be in danger:

Koizumi meanwhile said Japan still needed to confim the reported abduction of two more Japanese nationals, Junpei Yasuda, a 30-year-old freelance journalist and Nobutaka Watanabe, a 36-year-old peace activist.

"We have to cope with the matter in a cautious and unified manner," he said.
No doubt. This would seem to imply a lack of coordination between kidnappers- why release some only to kidnap others- but it's sad that the tactic appears to be becoming entrenched.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Billmon and the Territories

A truly, truly savage critique over at Billmon of the Bush administration's announcement of support for Sharon's plan of a unilateral pullout of the Gaza strip (in exchange for entrenchment of existing West Bank settlements).

Here's just a taste:

This is a shameful capitulation. As the Reuters story notes, the statement overturns in one stroke almost 40 years of official U.S. policy -- a policy Shrub's father actually showed a fair amount of political courage in defending. For decades, Israeli leaders (Likud and Labor alike) have worked to create those "new realities on the ground" -- as the statement, with the usual neocon arrogance, describes them -- through illegal land expropriations, relentless discrimination against Palestinian landowners, and lavish government subsidies for Jewish settlers. And for decades, the U.S. government has refused to accept Israel's bully boy tactics, despite the relentless, continuous efforts of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

That's gone now -- and probably for good, as I'll explain in a moment. Today's statement essentially guts the road map (itself a largely gutless process) by deleting the essential principle that the final status of the territories will not be determined by unilateral action on either side (which in the real world, means on the Israeli side.) It also negates the fundamental premise of UN Resolution 242 -- the bedrock of all peace efforts over the past 40 years -- that territory will not be acquired by force.

Indeed, Sharon actually ends up with something better than an approved settlement list from Bush. He gets virtual carte blanche to keep any settlement he wishes to keep -- and indeed, to grab any part of the West Bank he wishes to grab, as long as it can be connected in some way to those "existing major Israeli populations centers." And if you know anything about Israel's settlement policies in the occupied territories, you know how good they are at connecting things.
That's just a small part... Billmon is TICKED. (Needless to say, the comments thread is 395 comments strong and just getting warmed up). In some respects, I share his concerns; I have believed and continue to believe that the final borders must be subject to negotiation, and that an over-focus on "the situation on the ground" as deterministic of the final outcome creates a very dangerous precedent. Uprooting thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of settlers would be a disturbing and potentially violent task, no doubt, but this was always part-and-parcel of the settlement process. The Israeli government can't shuck its own responsibility for this slow explansion any more than the P.A. can for the "drive them into the sea", anti-semetic rhetoric of its extremist members.

(In fact, considering the financial incentives for settlement in the Territories, one could easily hold the Israeli government directly responsible, but that is a debatable matter.)

Still, I'm more than a little uncomfortable with Billmon's insistence that "Washington truly is Likud-occupied territory now". Needless to say, that sort of argument is the first step down a very dark road indeed, and obscures the fact that no matter how powerful, AIPAC and the neo-cons are only a few players in a very large game indeed.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

For those who actually read this site and don't read his...

Atrios is on Air America right now.

Although I'm more than pleased at his success, he's about the most public secret pseudonymous commentator I've yet ran across.

(Were I invited onto Air America- which is probably unlikely given my current posting frequency- I'd at least use a voice disguiser. Mostly because they sound cool, sure, but pseudonymity requires some sacrifices.)

Edit: it's been pretty good, although I think that Janeane and Sam's take on Bush's backers misses the historical context of the Republican spin machine: to attempt to manufacture their own counterparts to FDR, Wilson, LBJ (to an extent), and other notable Democrats. The record of Republican presidents since the start of the century hasn't been exactly inspiring, and the ones from the last 30 years are almost hilariously bad. They've got to cover for that.

(Yes, that includes Reagan. The only reason Reagan's foreign policy wasn't a total failure was Mikhail Gorbachev.)

The spin is because now that there's a war on, they really, really want Bush II to be the new FDR. They'll do and say anything to do that. They're also desperate to keep Clinton's reputation in the toilet, because his relatively successful presidency and sexual dalliances are a serious threat to the core tenet of social conservatism: that private (sexual) morality determines success.


Bush's press conference tonight was unbelievably bad. When he wasn't stammering or transparently dodging questions, he was looking astoundingly insincere about concepts (like grief for the 9/11 victims) that should have been impossible to fake! And that tie? Who vetted the tie? Fish markets don't have herringbones like that! The first and easiest rule of television, a medium that he's supposed to have mastered, gets completely forgotten!

In any case, this is also a note that due to a spam buildup at my other address, I've switched addresses to hegemons_shadow@hotmail.com. That should keep the harvesters off for a few weeks or two at least. Those of you who rely on that address, take a note of it.

(Once again, there's no affiliation between my humble site and either the views or works of Mr. Card or of the ancient greek orator.)

I was wrong, by the by, about those Japanese hostages. I really wish I hadn't been.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Crisis (probably) averted

It looks like the Japanese hostages will be freed, instead of being burned alive by their kidnappers. That's good news, extremely good. It may not stem the controversy over what happened, though.

Japan's presence in this particular conflict has always been problematic at best. The Japanese people were extremely opposed to sending over GSDF forces to Iraq, and I've got the impression that even the government would have said "no" had Bush not leaned on Koizumi to send some sort of help. The eventual compromise position was that the Japanese would go over, but would operate strictly on a humanitarian basis. They'd only use their guns to defend themselves. There was, and is, a controversy over what would happen if Japan lost soldiers and/or civilians, and we've come very close to seeing what would happen.

I've thought about it, and I think that there are really three ways it can go. First is a broadly "right-wing response", which will be overwhelming outrage at the deaths of Japanese in Iraq and a call for either an increased presence in Iraq and more aggressive rules of engagement. It would almost certainly be used as ammo for the right's crusade to end the section of Japan's constitution that outlaws war, which has been seen as outdated (if not humiliating) by the Japanese right for a while now. That'd almost certainly get blended together with a nice helping of xenophobia and anti-foreigner anger: at the Iraqis for killing Japanese, and at the Americans for forcing Japan's hand.

The more likely responses, however, are broadly left-wing, and they're a touch more interesting. The simple response is almost certainly the most likely: "let's get them out of there, I don't care how and damn the consequences". Unlike the United States, there isn't much support for their presence in the first place, and there's a conflicted attitude towards the military in general that makes appeals to "our troops overseas" unlikely to gain much traction. If Japanese citizens were to die in Iraq, it's quite likely that Koizumi would listen, and pull Japanese troops out. Even if they don't die, he may do so anyway if the current uprising is not quelled by the Americans.

The third option, however, is the one that is either the most interesting or the most disturbing, depending on how you look at it. Let's say Koizumi says "no, we can't leave, the Americans would punish us for it and we rely on them for their security". This is actually quite likely to happen. Some people will undoubtedly conclude that Koizumi is lying, but others will conclude that he's right- the Americans have the Japanese by the proverbial short hairs and there's nothing that Japan can do about it. What if some people say "Ok, then, let's get out from under the American umbrella and start handling our own affairs?" This isn't necessarily a right-wing response, because some on the left will almost certainly realize that the United States is going to be able to continue to dictate Japan's foreign policy as long as they're protecting them, and that Japan's freedom to remain broadly peaceful requires Japan to become responsible for its own security. There is also an economic argument to be made for Keynesian stimulus through military spending.

If that happens, Japan would almost certainly scrap Article 9 (the article that forces peace). If the left decided that pacifism is impossible as long as they're under the American umbrella then there would be little real opposition; the right certainly isn't going to oppose them. A Japan with a real military wouldn't really require the United States' assistance- they're already surprisingly powerful using only the constitutionally mandated 1% of GDP, and have leveraged their technological prowess into creating one of the best-equipped militaries in the world. They may have a small (and shrinking) relative population to other military powers, but you don't need a huge population to have an effective military.

If this happens, however, the strategic situation in the Asian-Pacific region would change overnight. China would almost certainly freak out, as Japan's technological prowess easily dwarfs their own. North Korea would likely do the same, but Japan's potential military capability really dwarfs their own; the only reason it doesn't now is because of that 1% of GDP limitation. Both have nuclear weapons, but Japan could easily build nukes as well, and public opinion on that issue is coming around thanks to the threat of North Korea. South Korea would be strongly opposed, but Japan isn't really the same country it was during the Meiji period; the obsession with invading Korea that plagued Japanese foreign policy since the late Ashikaga shogunate would be seen as ludicrous nowadays. In a lot of respects they're actually natural allies against China and North Korea. All the players in the region must also be thinking about the possibility of China flying apart into smaller statelets; the communist party can't last forever, and the centrifugal political and economic forces in China never really went away.

It would be deeply weird were the United States' actions in the Middle East to prompt this sort of massive change in East Asia. Indeed, the news that the hostages will be released implies that this scenario is farther away than it seemed yesterday or the day before. Still, the central contradiction of Japanese pacifism has been around for a long time, and Iraq is just as possible a catalyst as any. It's not like being an "economic tiger" is going to do it anymore. The 90's are long dead.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Kos and the Republicans

The biggest issue in Blogdom right now is undoubtedly the unwise comments made by Kos about the dead contractors in Fallujah. He said something along the lines of "Screw them" because of the fact coming out that they were mercenaries, and Kos is none too fond of mercenaries. Impolitic, but hardly the worst thing I've read online. The reaction, however, was enormous, with the Kerry site delinking Kos, various bloggers on the left criticizing him, and the right wing bloggers going absolutely mad over the whole thing. Kevin Drum made a good point about this:

Bottom line: like it or not, Kos is a spokesman for the left these days, and this kind of stuff doesn't help us. His advertisers are pulling out because of course they can't be associated with statements like this. It's a vote killer. And the end result will probably be a million bucks worth of fund raising for conservative causes. Not exactly what we need right now.
To an extent, I agree with him, but I think he missed the important thing: it's not about getting the Republicans money, it's about denying Democrats money.

See, I really see this as a sort of a test. The conservative online hegemony that prompted the creation of this website has been deminishing for a while now, as the "left blogosphere" and other related liberal websites have become more numerous and (this is key) more prominent. Most importantly, however, they've become a valuable source of money for various Democratic candidates. Bloggers like Atrios and Kos are becoming prominent "bundlers"- after a fashion. One of the primary Republican goals must be disconnecting these fundraisers from the candidates, and the best way to do that is by carefully scanning for "sound bites" that they can use to drive the wedge. Hence the reason Kos was targeted- they wanted to see whether or not the tactic would work in dividing the politicians from these most engaged fundraisers. And, if you look at Atrios' new linking and blogad policy, which emphasizes these delinks, it appears to be working.

Hence the reason why comments like Mike Stoller's comparison of blogging and Talk Radio, while excellent, strikes me as a little off the mark. Kos is a target because he's a valuable source of funds, not simply because he's an opinion leader. (Stoller does mention this, but it's not his main thrust). Bloggers are ALSO attacked for being opinion leaders, but the money makes it far more virulent. Talk radio is completely different, due to the simple differences of medium eliminating the fundraising element... even if everything Rush said was documented, he still wouldn't be as easily accessable a source of funds as Kos.

The attacks, and the reaction, also demonstrate the fundamental difference between the left and right that remains to this day. The integration between liberal bloggers and democratic politicians mostly centers around the recognition by the former that Bush needs to go, and by the latter that these "bloggers" are a source of valuable funds. Even while there is recognition by both that "they need to stick together", there is a wide divergence of opinion on a number of issues; bloggers remain fully willing to criticize their chosen pols quite severely, as well as each other.

The money link doesn't seem as prominent on the right, probably due to the remaining influence of the Dean phenomenon and the previous complacency of Bush supporters. The fundamental willingness to do or say anything to keep Bush in power, however, means that they're more than willing to pick up on whatever "outrage of the week" exists and repeat talking points until their fingertips bleed.

The unity of the left can't really be used on the right, outside of the typical uses for which money is employed. The unity on the right, we've discovered, can be used on the left. Now that they know it works, they'll keep on using it from now until November.

So, my advice? Watch yourselves, folks. Rest assured, they'll be watching you.