Monday, March 31, 2008

Iraq as a Fractal

If you don't know where you're sailing, no wind is favorable. -- Seneca

In This Week's Sift:
What's Happening in Iraq? This week's fighting shows that even the factions have factions.

Three Economic Speeches. McCain, Clinton, and Obama all said what they'd do about the financial mess.

Alternative to American Idol. Where I look for good online video.

Short Notes. The irrelevance of peak oil. The political influence of Rev. Moon. Obama's foreign policy. What the candidates think about sex education. And what if the Bosnia video really looked the way Hillary remembers it?

What's Happening in Iraq?
The civil war in Iraq heated up again this week, and may or may not be settling down now that Muqtada al-Sadr has called for peace.

All sides are trying to spin these developments in their own favor, so it's been hard to sort things out. Here's the story as best I can put it together: From the beginning, Iraq's elected central government has only sort of been a government. Much of the country has been under the control of local militias who might or might not implement the central government's policies. We talk a lot of about three factions -- Sunni, Shia, and Kurd -- but in reality each of those factions has factions of its own, which may ally or fight depending on circumstances.

The main goal of the Surge was to change this situation by strengthening the central government's hand, so that the local militias would either negotiate a relationship with the government or be destroyed militarily. The showpiece of the Surge is the western provinces, where Sunni tribes switched sides, allying themselves with the U. S. instead of al-Qaida-in-Iraq (which is not necessarily the same thing as bin Laden's al-Qaida). That agreement hasn't quite resulted in bringing them into the government and may be breaking down, but it's not part of this week's story.

One of the fears from the beginning of the Surge was that Prime Minister Maliki, a Shiite, would only agree to the part of the plan that neutralized the Sunni militias, and would leave the Shia alone. That more-or-less has been the way things played out until recently. Last August, al-Sadr declared a temporary cease-fire for his militia, the Madhi Army, and the government has left the southern provinces and parts of Baghdad in the control of Sadr and a few other militias.

Last week the government opened an offensive to take military control of Basra, the biggest city in the southern provinces and the only port for Iraq's oil. The L. A. Times describes what happened:
Maliki staked his reputation on the crackdown, which began Tuesday, vowing to remain in Basra until law and order was restored. But the campaign instead revealed the strength of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which fought more than 28,000 government troops to a standstill in parts of Basra and pounded Baghdad's fortified Green Zone with days of punishing rocket and mortar fire.
Over the weekend, Iran brokered a settlement between Sadr and a number of other Iraqi politicians, none of whom officially represented the government. The meeting took place in the Shia holy city of Qom in Iran. Sunday, Sadr issued his statement calling on his followers to stand down. As of Monday morning, the peace seemed mostly to be holding. The main question seems to be whether al-Sadr can control all his followers, or if they too are split into factions.

Initially, the Bush administration tried to spin this episode positively, as a sign of confidence by the central government that it could take on the militias. McCain has tried to distance the U. S. from the effort and spin it as a success. But in those terms the outcome of all this has to be counted as a failure. The government offensive did not take Basra, and it was Iran who restored peace, not the United States.

The New York Times quotes one Shia political leader, part of Maliki's coalition but not in Maliki's party, as saying: “The government now is in a weak position. They claimed that they are going to disarm the militias and they didn’t succeed.”

My favorite place to follow this story as it unfolds is on Juan Cole's blog.

Three Economic Speeches
This week all three major presidential candidates gave speeches on the economy: Obama, Clinton, and McCain. Salon's Andrew Leonard sums them up in a way that favors Obama:
Obama sounded like he understood what he was talking about. McCain sounded like he was reading a speech designed to make him look like he understood what was going on. ... Hillary went to Philadelphia and promised Pennsylvania voters a gift-basket of direct government assistance. Obama went to New York and made a case for long term, fundamental change, along with a smaller gift basket.
The NYT's Paul Krugman, conversely, is more impressed with Clinton. He characterizes Obama's proposals as "cautious and relatively orthodox." Jared Bernstein finds this assessment puzzling.

Leonard's McCain assessment is dead-on. McCain's speech reads like an undergraduate term paper. (I saw most of it on one of the cable channels, and he did not read it well.) It's superficially informative about how the mortgage situation got out of hand, but it's not a plan so much as a set of instructions that you'd give to somebody if you wanted them to write you a plan.
it is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers. Government assistance to the banking system should be based solely on preventing systemic risk that would endanger the entire financial system and the economy.
So government shouldn't bail anybody out -- unless it's necessary. No details about who exactly that would include.
When we commit taxpayer dollars as assistance, it should be accompanied by reforms that ensure that we never face this problem again. Central to those reforms should be transparency and accountability.
Transparency and accountability are impressively multisyllabic. McCain goes on to say that he is "prepared to examine new proposals" based on these principles. The only actual proposal he makes right away is to convene meetings of "the nation's accounting professionals" and "the nation's top mortgage lenders." And he appears to expect them to volunteer to do something. He mentions GM's offer of 0% financing on its cars after 9/11 -- as if that had been some patriotic gift GM gave to the economy rather than a marketing gimmick. That didn't give me a warm feeling. And my mouth fell open when he observed that 51 million of our 55 million mortgages are not in trouble and commented: "That leaves us with a puzzling situation: how could 4 million mortgages cause this much trouble for us all?"

Maybe because 4 million mortgages might be something like $1 trillion? Do the math, John.

And then comes the clincher: “our financial market approach should include encouraging increased capital in financial institutions by removing regulatory, accounting and tax impediments to raising capital.” Krugman is right to describe this as "selling the same old snake oil, claiming that deregulation and tax cuts cure all ills."

Clinton and Obama both expressed support for the Dodd-Frank bill currently in Congress. (Already that puts them miles ahead of McCain in terms of specificity and immediacy -- two multisyllabic words McCain should pay more attention to.) I'm not up on the details of that bill, which aims to prevent foreclosures by giving lenders an incentive to restructure the loan. Both Democrats propose something in addition to Dodd-Frank, and Leonard is right that Clinton offers the bigger "gift-basket of direct government assistance." That might be either good or bad, depending on details I don't know or understand.

To me, the impressive part of Obama's speech is what happens next. Assume we get past the immediate crisis. Then what? He gives a very simple framing of what went wrong: FDR built a regulatory structure appropriate for the banks of his day. When the banking industry started to change in the 80s and 90s, we just got rid of the old structure rather than figure out what a new structure should be. He lays the blame right at the feet of the deregulation movement, and he does it without saying that we should just go back to the old regulations.

What's he talking about? In the Depression, Roosevelt established the FDIC to insure bank deposits. But he also built a wall (the Glass-Steagall Act) that separated banks from the riskier investment banks. (That's why the Morgan-Chase bank is separate from the Morgan-Stanley investment bank.) The idea was that if the government was going to bail you out when you got into trouble, then you had to submit to government regulation that kept you from doing risky things.

Well, Glass-Steagall got repealed in 1999 -- which wasn't necessarily a bad thing; the banking world had changed and its particular restrictions didn't make a lot of sense any more. "But," Obama notes, "the $300 million lobbying effort that drove deregulation was more about facilitating mergers than creating an efficient regulatory framework." And the end result is that the Fed had to bail out Bear Stearns, an investment bank, because letting it collapse might have brought down our banking system. Because there's no wall between the two any more.

Obama does not have the new regulatory structure in his back pocket. At this point he resorts to McCain's tactic of giving instructions to a plan-maker. But his first principle is dead-on: "If you can borrow from the government, you should be subject to government oversight and supervision." That's exactly what went wrong: Bear Stearns was free to do as it pleased, and when it got into trouble the government had to lend it money.

This points to a difference in the way Clinton and Obama think, and may explain why people who like one often can't understand people who like the other. Listening the Clinton, the world seems to have an infinite number of small-to-medium-sized problems, each of which needs some special band-aid. (Bill was the same way.) Listening to Obama, the world seems to have a few big problems that all interlock -- the mortgage crisis interlocks with deregulation which interlocks with campaign finance corruption -- so you need a big-picture understanding to keep your individual solutions from messing each other up. If one view rings true to you, the other probably doesn't.

While we're on the candidates and the economy: The American Prospect has an article connecting the dots on some of the things McCain and his economic advisers have been saying over time. The conclusion comes down to this: If you're going to keep fighting expensive wars, keep cutting taxes, and not be fiscally irresponsible -- all of which seem to be McCain core principles -- the only way to do it is to drastically cut Social Security and Medicare. Keep that analysis in mind when you hear McCain use the phrase entitlement reform.

Alternatives to American Idol
One of the things I try to do on the Sift is point you towards not just good articles, but good video as well. In previous weeks I've found a lot of amusing stuff through Slate's Did You See This? blog. (This week I found a game of Tetris played out by having people in colored t-shirts move down the pews in a church. Don't try to picture it, just click the link.)

Salon has a site called Video Dog, where this week I found Scott Bateman's animation of the audio of Dick Cheney's response to the 4,000th American death in Iraq. (Whenever Cheney pauses, the text on the side suggests more honest ways he might finish the sentence. See an alternate view of Cheney's remarks here.) Video Dog trends more towards serious stuff than DYST, like their weekly series Big Think, where viewers submit questions for next week's interview with some interesting person. The recent interview with ACLU president Nadine Strossen is pretty good. A Noam Chomsky interview is in the works, and might show up today.

Of course, you could just skip the middleman and browse the Big Think website itself, where you'll find all kinds of stuff that Salon didn't pick up. For instance this two-minute talk by Islamic Studies professor Reza Aslan debunking the whole notion of a "clash of civilizations." (The name "Big Think" comes from the animals' slang in H. G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau. In this context it's ironic, implying that intellectuals are trying a little too hard.)

Another feast of wonkish delights is The basic idea here is simple: You get two smart people sitting in their respective offices, connect them with webcams, and let them talk to each other. The talks run 30-60 minutes, and afterwards they get broken into subject-related segments. (On TV it works the other way: "We've 45 seconds before the break. Tell me what you think about racism in America.") You can watch the whole discussion or just replay the segment you're interested in. Check out this 7-minute segment about race, gender, and generational politics between Dahlia Lithwick of Slate and Richard Ford of Stanford Law School. (If you examine the URL, you'll see that you can re-segment the video yourself just by changing the IN and OUT times.) Also take a look at Robert Wright and Robert Reich discussing the economy.

Short Notes
BarelyPolitical has doctored the Clinton Bosnia video to make it more like Hillary's description. And tripletee on DailyKos fantasizes The War Journals of Hillary Clinton.

Kevin Drum is getting fed up with the free ride the media keeps giving McCain. When McCain recently didn't seem to know that al-Qaida (Sunni) and Iran (Shia) are not natural allies, it got written off because McCain has "foreign policy cred". Drum goes on the list all the different kinds of "cred" McCain has with the media, and how it puts him beyond the criticism that would rain down on Clinton or Obama if they made comparable mistakes. Glenn Greenwald makes a similar point at more length.

Update from the Department of Cluelessness: The New York Times has discovered that young people email each other links to news stories. "In essence, they are replacing the professional filter — reading The Washington Post, clicking on — with a social one." Fleshing out that observation requires 20 paragraphs.

If we're going to talk about wacko religious figures and their influence on politics, David Neiwert on FireDogLake wonders why we don't start with the wackiest, most influential religious figure of all: Rev. Sun Myung Moon. In addition to being the Messiah, Rev. Moon has a day job as owner of The Washington Times, a key player in the right-wing media machine. Neiwert links to a video by John Gorenfeld, author of Bad Moon Rising. Among other things, the video shows a ceremony crowning Moon as King of America -- attended by some major political figures. Interesting detail: Since buying it in 1982, Moon has lost $3 billion on The Washington Times. That's like giving a $3 billion campaign contribution to the conservative movement. But strangely, no one on the Right ever has to explain that he's not a Moonie. Meanwhile, Mother Jones examines a McCain ally and "spiritual guide", televangelist Rod Parsley, who thinks we need to destroy Islam.

Comprehensive sex education works; abstinence-only sex education doesn't. Guess which one the Bush administration has been pushing? Dr. Rahul Parikh kicks off a new Salon health series Vital Signs by examining McCain, Clinton, and Obama's positions. But you can probably guess what they are.

After talking to Obama's foreign policy advisers (and pointing out that you'd have learned more in 2000 from looking at Bush's advisers than at what he was saying in his campaign) the American Prospect argues that Obama represents a fundamental rethinking of American foreign policy. An unnamed adviser says, "For a long time we've not seen much creative thinking from Dems on national security, because, out of fear, we want to be a little different from the Republicans but not too different, out of fear of being labeled weak or indecisive." The buzz-phrase is dignity promotion. "He goes back to Roosevelt," [Samantha] Power says. "Freedom from fear and freedom from want. What if we actually offered that? What if we delivered that in the developing world? That would be a transformative agenda for us." Meanwhile, the Washington Post analyzes whether Obama is an old-style liberal.

Joseph Romm has an excellent article on Salon about the irrelevance of the argument about whether oil production is peaking. Even if it's not, it can't keep up with the growth in demand. (If China and India reach the per-capita energy levels of South Korea, he says, they'll use as much oil as the whole world uses now.) And even if we found enough oil or alternative hydrocarbons, burning it all would be an environmental disaster. Romm thinks we need plug-in cars and and electricity grid powered by solar, wind, and nuclear.

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