Monday, December 7, 2009


Karma high, karma low.
Blood is precious --
yes or no?
-- Robyn Hitchcock, The Yip Song
[Yes, I know the lyrics sites don't parse it that way. Listen for yourself.]

In this week's Sift:
  • Doubling Down in Afghanistan. What we've done for eight years hasn't worked, so we either need to do better or get out. President Obama has decided to try to do better. My usual friends on the Left feel betrayed, but I can't figure out what they expected Obama to do.
  • Economic Notes. The corporate corruption of science. 25 years after Bhopal. Job totals level off. Economics works differently when you're poor. Gloating about Dubai. And we're #9.
  • Short Notes. Sarah. Tiger. A Republican ploy backfires. Friedman being Friedman. When polls go down, it doesn't always mean what they think it does. More on NFL concussions. ACORN. Now they're claiming Bush had no terrorist attacks on his watch. And more.

Doubling Down in Afghanistan
I listened to President Obama's Afghanistan speech [videotranscript]. I didn't know what I wanted to hear, so I don't know whether I heard it. I know what I didn't want to hear: That everything is going fine and we'll just stay the course. Because everything isn't going fine.

Background. President Bush started bombing in Afghanistan about a month after 9-11. After that we sent in a relatively small number of special forces, who (combined with our air power) helped the Northern Alliance drive the Taliban out of Kabul and the other major Afghan cities. At that point we made the classic mistake that counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen calls "confusing entry with victory." We thought the war was over but for an occasional skirmish while we looked for Bin Laden.

More troops were sent to help the new government maintain power, but we (and the government) were indebted both to the Northern Alliance and to several major warlords who switched sides when it became clear the Taliban was losing. So the national government never really achieved power in large sections of the country and corruption has run rampant.

In 2002 we started mobilizing for the invasion of Iraq, and Afghanistan left the headlines. The massive aid the country needed to reconstruct never appeared, and such aid as there was often got stolen. The Northern Alliance having been mainly Uzbek and Tajik, the Pashtuns never warmed to the new government. The Taliban regrouped in Pakistan and began coming back. We made a second classic mistake of using firepower to compensate for our lack of troops, and killed a lot of civilians in "collateral damage."  

Many books will give you the flavor of that early period of the war. One of the most engaging is 2005's Come Back to Afghanistan by Said Hyder Akbar, a California teen who comes to Afghanistan when his father, an old friend of President Karzai, is appointed governor of Kunar province near Pakistan. He is only beginning to be disillusioned when he comes back to America in 2003, but already you hear stories of projects that don't happen, and the shock he and his father feel when someone from their province is beaten to death while in American custody.

Since then things have gotten steadily worse. In 2003, 57 coalition troops were killed. That number has gone up every year since, reaching 295 in 2008. In 2009, President Obama announced one troop increase in February and General McChrystal (appointed in June) has pushed for a counter-insurgency strategy, both of which could have been expected to increase casualties in the short run. They have: Coalition troop deaths doubled from June to July, and total 488 so far this year.

General McChrystal's report in August asked for 40,000 more troops. More troops are an important part of a counter-insurgency strategy, which focuses on protecting the population rather than chasing down the bad guys. COIN, as it's called, also thinks collateral damage does enormous long-term harm to the war effort, and so tries to use the minimum necessary firepower. Loosely speaking, counter-insurgency needs more troops because you have to see what you're shooting at. I described the basics of counter-insurgency in March.

What Obama said. He's going to send another 30,000 troops, which he expects to start withdrawing in July, 2011. Is that a good idea? Most of the people I usually agree with don't think so. Some of the strongest arguments for pulling troops out rather than sending more are here and here. Andrew Bacevich puts it like this:
I find this notion that we need to pacify Afghanistan, because that's where the 9/11 attacks were planned, to be absurd. It's really the equivalent of saying that if we want to prevent the assassination of any future presidents, we need to station Secret Service agents in the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas because that's where an assassination happened.
What keeps me on the fence is Pakistan. They have nukes, and the Pashtun insurgency is operating there too. I'd like to say: "Let's pull out and they can take care of their own problems." But I don't have enough confidence in my own expertise to say that. 

Having read McChrystal's report, the main impression I get is that he believes he can fulfill his mission. And while it's easy to over-state what the Surge accomplished in Iraq, it did work better than I thought it would: We are pulling out now, and leaving behind a government that has a chance to survive. I wouldn't have thought that was possible in 2006.

And one more thing: I'm still not done giving Obama the benefit of the doubt. I won't support him when he's obviously wrong, as he is on some civil liberty and executive power issues. But I'm not sure here, so I'll give his policy a chance.

Politics. In general, the Left is pitching Obama's decision as a betrayal. Tom Hayden says he's tearing the Obama sticker off his car. (Joan Walsh laughs at him and reminds us that she's still bitter about Hillary losing.)

But I don't understand how progressives can feel betrayed, given what Candidate Obama wrote in Time:
My first order as Commander in Chief will be to end the war in Iraq and refocus our efforts on Afghanistan and our broader security interests. ... we must recognize that the central front in the war on terror is not in Iraq, and it never was. The central front is in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is unacceptable that almost seven years after 9/11, those responsible for the attacks remain at large. If another attack on our homeland occurs, it will likely come from this same region where 9/11 was planned. Yet today we have five times more troops in Iraq than Afghanistan. ... I will send at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan and use this commitment to seek greater contributions--with fewer restrictions--from NATO allies. I will focus on training Afghan security forces and supporting an Afghan judiciary. I will once and for all dismantle al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
The only difference between that statement and what he said Tuesday is the size of the escalation. If you were paying attention in 2008 and feel betrayed now, I can only imagine two possibilities: (1) You were totally convinced that two more brigades would be sufficient to "once and for all dismantle al-Qaeda and the Taliban." Or (2) you thought Obama was just blowing smoke to appease the moderates.

I'm guessing that in most cases the answer is (2), and the problem is that Candidate Obama was more honest and forthright than people thought he was. (David Sirota disagrees with me.)

You know who would really have a right to feel betrayed? Centrists if Obama had announced a major pull-out from Afghanistan. Obama didn't run on an across-the-board anti-war platform, and he probably would have lost if he had. He said he would focus our war effort on our real enemies (al Qaeda) rather than our imaginary ones (Iraqis). That's what he's doing.

Why a timetable? Nobody, right or left, likes this part of Obama's speech:
these additional American and international troops will ... allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground. 
The Left is annoyed that "conditions on the ground" might allow the schedule to slip, while the Right is opposed to "artificial timetables." 

I like the timetable, and I think both sides are missing the point. Obama is neither making an empty promise nor carving an arbitrary deadline into stone. Instead, he's giving us a standard to judge him by. If July of 2011 arrives and our troops aren't beginning to transfer out of Afghanistan, then things haven't gone as well as he expected. He'll have to come back to us and explain what is happening and what his new goals are.

This is similar to Obama's pledge to close Guantanamo within a year. He's going to miss that deadline, and he'll owe us an explanation. In other words, he sets goals that make him accountable. That's what a responsible leader does.

George Bush never did. His wars never had a timetable or a budget, so matter what happened, he was never accountable and never owed us anything. This is the archetypal Bush quote:
the true history of my administration will be written 50 years from now, and you and I will not be around to see it.
in other words: Any conceivable accountability moment would be premature. If W is still around to be held accountable, it's too soon to judge.
Whenever a president commits our country to some goal, it's totally fair to ask: "How long do you think this is going to take?" Tuesday, Obama answered that question straightforwardly. It's a measure of just how degraded the presidency has become that we can't recognize responsible leadership when we see it.

Economic Notes
The Copenhagen talks on global warming started today. As someone undoubtedly intended, the "climategate" emails are in the opening paragraph of every story, once again creating the idea that there is some kind of scientific controversy.

The real story here is larger and is not getting covered: the corruption of science by corporate money. If you have enough money, you can fund think tanks, establish journals, and hire scientists to confuse almost any issue. The tobacco companies pioneered in this area, and the rest of industry has been perfecting the tobacco-company techniques ever since. That's why there is a "controversy" about global warming: Oil companies will lose a lot of future profits if we take action to reduce carbon emissions, so they pay scientists (and now, I speculate, hackers) to raise doubt about the need to act.

The infrastructure of science was not built to defend against this kind of thing. Science is a community process by which data is gathered and theories are raised to explain that data. It thrives on open, honest debate, through which reasonable people eventually reach consensus. (For example, we are not still arguing about whether the Sun or the Earth is the center of the solar system.) But it is not equipped to handle persistent dishonest debate, in which scientists dream up increasingly elaborate excuses for doubt because vested interests pay them to do so.

As Upton Sinclair wrote: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Speaking of corporations, it's been 25 years since the Bhopal disaster. 15,000 people have died, and Union Carbide was bought by Dow Chemical, which washed its hands of all responsibility.
If I'm going to keep bad-mouthing corporations, I should at least link to Jared Diamond's piece on the good they do.

I hate to hear about major layoffs at a big newspaper, because we're getting such bad news coverage already. But it's hard to feel bad about layoffs at the Washington Times.

A new book explains how economic reasoning looks different when you're poor. Well-to-do economics assumes something called "diminishing marginal utility." In other words: The first bite of a big steak has the most value to you because you're hungry. Each subsequent bite is worth less and less, until you eventually walk away with steak still on your plate. 

But if you're poor, everything gets inverted and diminishing marginal utility goes out the window: "paying the first bill in a stack of overdue bills does little to relieve a guilty conscience." I may have to read and review this.

I shouldn't really complain about the Tiger Woods coverage, because I also have a prurient interest in how the mighty have fallen. Dubai, for example. The Discovery Network's Really Big Things shows us the Burj Dubai.

Matt Yglesias puts the decline of the dollar into perspective: It's back where it was before the economic crisis hit in September 2008.

The 2009 Prosperity Index is out. The U.S. is #9, behind all those socialistic Scandinavian countries. You know what really drags us down? We rank 27th in health -- still behind #24 Slovenia.

Short Notes
Another example of corporate money corrupting the public debate is health care, as Rolling Stone outlined in September. And check this out too.

Tom Friedman is a great example of what happens when you start believing your own propaganda. 
Yes, after two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny — in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan — a narrative that says America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving.
Matt Yglesias gives him the slap-down he deserves.

Nate Silver points out something important: Whenever Obama's support goes down, pundits assume that the public is turning more conservative. Sometimes, though, Obama loses support from the Left, not the Center.

That seems to be what's happening with health care. Support for the plan currently in Congress is going down, but largely because it doesn't go far enough.

Republican Senators Coburn and Vitter thought they had a great way to expose liberal hypocrisy: Put an amendment in the health-care bill that would force Congressmen to use the public option. Then Sherrod Brown and Al Franken signed on as co-sponsors.
The NFL's guidelines on concussions, which I discussed last week in a note after the book review, got a little stronger this week.
Sarah Palin joins the Birthers: "It's a fair question" whether President Obama is really an American citizen. Maybe it was -- for about ten seconds two years ago. Snopes summarizes the evidence. Kevin Drum sees this as another step in "the mainstreaming of insanity in the Republican Party." On XX, Rachel Larimore writes:
I realize now that what I most liked about you was an idealized image of you that I created. I like that a woman can have a political career while raising a bunch of kids, that one could succeed without having the right pedigree or giving those kids country club names, that you were unabashedly pro-life. From now on I’ll be looking for those qualities in someone else rather than trying to reconcile your positive attributes with all the wackiness.
During the same interview, Palin discusses the conspiracy theory about the birth of her son Trig. Apparently, the lesson she draws from that experience is that everybody should be treated just as badly as she thinks she was.

Speaking of Trig, Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory writes about how Trig has become 'a straw man baby against pro-choice activists." Pro-lifers are representing pro-choicers as being offended by Trig's very existence, although they can never seem to name any actual pro-choicer who has that reaction. After all, Palin was exercising her right to choose when she decided to give birth Trig.

While we're talking about Sarah, here's another example of image vs. reality. She's currently on a bus tour of the country to promote her book -- sort of. Yes, a bus with her face on it is driving across America, but she's not in it. She takes a private jet from one gig to the next.

I had avoided reading anything but headlines about the Tiger Woods mess. But then my dentist and his assistant started talking about it, and I couldn't interrupt because their hands were in my mouth. So now I have an opinion.

Whenever there's celebrity scandal -- whether it's in sports, entertainment, or politics -- the thing that really amazes me is how amazed people are. Think about what celebrity status means: Somewhere in the process of becoming mega-famous, you pick up an entourage of agents, publicists, bodyguards, money managers, and various other folks who just want to bask in your august presence. Before long, whether anybody asks them to or not, the entourage starts taking on three jobs: (1) providing whatever you might want before you think to ask for it; (2) shielding you from blame; and (3) agreeing with all your self-justifications. That sets up a moral test I think very few people would pass.

Back in the impeachment era I used to ask Clinton-bashing guys: How many thong-snapping 20-somethings have you turned down?

You know the worst thing about the Tiger Woods story? ESPN now thinks it's CNN,  and breathlessly gives us all the "breaking news" on Tiger.  Uh ... guys? Who won the game?

Gadget ideas for Christmas.
Emptywheel wonders: Why doesn't anybody ever ask Dick Cheney the hard questions, or any follow-up questions at all?

ACORN is the right wing's favorite demon, and liberals have done little to defend it. Here's what's behind all the nonsense charges against ACORN.
Just in case I didn't trash the Conservative Bible Project hard enough in October, here's a Catholic blog:
Let’s just suppose that there is bias in modern translations, all of which are liberal in character. Apparently, the best way to combat bias is with more bias. This is a fascinating move to relativism, or postmodernism for the CBP. There is no "correct" or "best" translation, just those that reflect my bias or your bias. This is a move that is bound to place the word of God not in the realm of revealed texts, but of crass ideology. It is also to accept that my ideology transcends the truth of the word of God.

How conservative is that?

Al Franken's first piece of legislation was an amendment that made Republican senators choose between rape victims and corporate allies like Blackwater. This, according to Republican senators, was dirty pool. Senator Thune hopes Franken will "settle down" and focus on "the serious work of legislating" rather than foolishness like helping rape victims seek justice.

No one on Sean Hannity's show protested when former Bush press secretary Dana Perino said, "We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush's term." Nobody remembered that one in New York. And the Pentagon. And the anthrax attack. And the guy who blew away two people during a children's pageant in a liberal Tennessee church. And some I've probably forgotten myself.

1 comment:

Clint said...

Progressives, if they've been paying attention, shouldn't feel betrayed or surprised by the escalation.

Obama campaigned on 're-deployment' to Afghanistan from Iraq, and his presidency thus far has been marked by a strong allegiance to the industries that favored his campaign (financial, health/pharma and now military).

The complaint against Obama is mostly futile, as the Left has itself to blame for their lack of organization, and, hence, their inability to influence the White House.