Sunday, October 19, 2003
Slacktivist is deconstructing the Left Behind series. It's dirty work but someone has to do it; at a high enough level of analysis, the works themselves are less ... polluting. And of course they are a tremendously important cultural phenomenon, at least at the Father Coughlin level, maybe even more important.
There are some blogs which post a lot, and some which post more rarely but are still interesting and useful. Intel Dump, for example, usually has only one posting a day. But it is reliably a fascinating piece which uses the author's two sources of particular expertise, in law and in the US military, to shed light on some underobserved phenomenon, news story, or development, and the reader who is less expert in either will learn a lot.
This is all apropos of saying that the Dump has two articles this weekend which are serious good news/bad news stuff.
The first is to say that the rule of law still applies: eight marines have been charged with various offences concerning the mistreatment of military prisoners, although it's early days to draw any conclusions about what happened.
The second, which the Dump reports without comment, is that what Juan Cole reported, via the Arab press is true: one of the US military police killed on Thursday was the Lt. Col. commanding a military police battalion. Unless my memory is failing, this fatality is by a long way the most senior US officer to be killed in Iraq since the invasion began; it's hard to say that as such this event is more significant than any of the other casualties, but it is a depressing marker on the road.
Needlenose points out a New York Times story about the President's unwillingness to negotiate over the terms of aid to Iraq:
"He said, `I'm here to tell you this is what we have to do and this is how we have to do it,'" said Senator Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, one of the few Democrats who attended the Tuesday afternoon session. When she raised a question, she said, "He looked at me and said, `It's not negotiable, and I don't want to debate it.' " Republicans who attended did not dispute Senator Landrieu's account
Swopa at Needlenose sees this as a matter of political presentation (albeit one that carries the danger of appearing arrogant), but I think there is a bit more to it. There is a reason that politics in the US system has such a strong norm of going-along-to-get-along, and it's not that the people involved are necessarily inclined to engage in this because they (unlike Bush) are weak. It is the institutional logic of the system that it is very hard to get everything you want for an extended period; periods of dominance (even Presidential dominance) are limited in time and relatively rare. Where the President tries to set policy unilaterally then it often results in damage to the Presidency as much as to his opponents: Nixon's White House would be the classic example of a Presidency trying to route round Congress rather than negotiate, but some of the errors of the first part of the Clinton administration (93-5) fall into this category. Again, the consequences of behaving like this are not so much immediate defeat - in all likelihood, the President will get what he wants out of the conference committee - but of political power in the medium term. A President who is careless with reciprocity and fails to observe the transactional norms of politics will often find himself in a situation where he needs reciprocity himself: breaking those norms in order to appear more leaderlike is just not good politics.
Doonesbury nails down the White House's strategery on linking 9/11 and Saddam Hussein.
Thursday, October 16, 2003
Via atrios' Eschaton:
Top terrorist hunter’s divisive views:
And we ask ourselves this question, 'Why do they hate us? Why do they hate us so much?'
Ladies and gentlemen, the answer to that is because we’re a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian. Did I say Judeo-Christian? Yes. Judeo-Christian. That means we’ve got a commitment to Israel. That means it’s a commitment we’re never going to abandon.
Was there not one brief moment when the POTUS described the war on terrorism as a crusade? At the time everyone thought it was a slip of the tongue - but, again, perhaps it was an intentional accident, designed to give red meat to the likes of the General quoted above.
Three other thoughts that need writing down though could do with a little more organising:
i) When did msnbc become good? in recent weeks they broke the Plame investigation story ahead of the WaPo, and now they have this...
ii) In the comment threads to the above Atrios story, there is a troll/satire of Charles Johnson, proprietor of viciously anti-Islam, and anti-Arab, site Little Green Footballs (to which no civilised person should link, hence none here). The satirist makes the bizarre and alarming claim that the attack on the American diplomatic convoy in Gaza (which is of course a disaster of unprecedented proportions for Palestinian aspirations) is the fault of Rachel Corrie, the US protestor killed by an Israeli bulldozer in March. Seven months ago. Surely this troll has gone too far, I thought; until discovering that if you do head over to Little Green Footballs the top story says exactly that. Woman seven months dead more responsible for incident than anyone actually involved. That is pretty sick stuff.
iii) It's pretty shocking how little attention the deaths in Gaza have obtained in the US press: the story was very quickly swamped by others even though it seems like a very significant event with serious ramifications. The notable thing, I think, is that the three deaths were of contracted-out security guards working for DynCorp, rather than say diplomats, or US Marines; DynCorp seems to be able to sustain casualties among US citizens which would get a lot more attention if those citizens were doing the same thing as direct employees of the US Government. I find that a bit strange, frankly, though it's no doubt part of the appeal to policymakers of such organisations: why does it have less news value in the US for someone to die as a contractor to the government than as an employee?
Wednesday, October 15, 2003
A comment thread at matthewyglesias.com develops the theme that George W Bush argues enthymematically, which is to say (according to the commentators, though the OED doesn't quite agree) with parts of his argument missing and provided by the reader/listener. This enables him to imply that certain things are true while never actually being pinned down and saying them: thus that al-qaeda and Iraq had links, or that Iraq posed an imminent threat. Both these things are clearly meant to be derived from what Bush says, but rarely - if ever - has he explicitly said any of them.
It's worth pointing out both that this is, if intentional, a very cunning tactic, providing plausible deniability for anything the President might want to imply but might not, at some later date, want to have said. But it is also something very narrowly tailored to Bush himself. A distinguished QC arguing before a judge does not, in all probability, leave those sorts of gaps; it would look foolish rather than effective. A PhD or D Phil thesis, similarly, needs to be thoroughly argued. A clever politician like Tony Blair or Gordon Brown has to get himself on record as saying what he wants people to hear, because the gaps in his argument are assessed by observers as being intentional, sly and intended to deceive.
But poor George - born perhaps with a silver spoon in his mouth, perhaps a silver foot a la Ann Richards, but certainly not a silver tongue. The poor man always looks in so much pain when talking - even, with the odd exception, when reading from a script - that you can't help but will him on and engage in a certain amount of generous interpretation - providing missing parts of arguments, as well as missing pronouns, nouns, verbs and the like. It's the sympathy his linguistic inadequacies create in us that would make intentional gaps in the rhetoric so effective - because it does look like he decided not to say that Saddam was an imminent threat because of the difficulty of that m-to-n-to-n transition, rather than because he was trying to imply imminence without actually saying it.
Tuesday, October 14, 2003
Billmon is spooked by a couple of polls appearing to show small rises in Bush's approval rating since the last polls by each organisation (CNN/USAToday and Gallup). He comes up with some arguments as to why Bush's approval rating may not matter for Bush; however he does not need to do so, and (since approval ratings in general are a good measure of support) his line is just not all that convincing.
The reason that he does not need to do so is that he is suffering the consequences of comparing pairs of polls from within a series. But there is just too much noise, and the month-to-month differences are too small, for this to be very helpful. As all people (one hopes) now know, there are great graphs on Pollkatz - especially the scatterplots of approval and disapproval.
From even a brief examination of these, there is a whole lot of noise in any given series of polls, and in all the polls taken at one point - they vary on approval and disapproval by 10-15% in absolute terms. But there are very clear trends: Bush has steadily lost support, at a pretty constant rate, throughout his Presidency apart from two huge increases in support, one on 9-11 and one during the Iraq war. That trend, of course, must end at some point - probably when some base level of support is reached. There is no reason, even with the most recent figures, to suspect that the levelling-out has begun; in any case we will not find out for a while, and there have been relatively few polls published in the past couple of weeks. In a month or so, with a bunch more polls, the chances are that Bush will have lost another two or three per cent over the month, and that this will be visible on the Pollkatz charts.
If this does happen to be the point at which Bush's support levels out, then Bush's support is neither high enough to guarantee re-election nor low enough to guarantee defeat.
Monday, October 13, 2003
Atrios's blog Eschaton appears to have been replaced (temporarily, one hopes) by that of this Brazilian woman. I'm trying to see this as a political statement related to Columbus Day, but can't quite make it work. www.atrios.blogspot.com appears to point to the correct blog, however...
UPDATE: as soon as I posted this, it started working properly again. Weird!
An interesting - if perhaps overinterpreted - piece at Donkey Rising suggests reasons to support Clark; meanwhile, Billmon breaks with Dean and decides to support anyone-but-Bush.
Which brings me to my point. As a non-American I've always found it pretty perplexing that individuals not paid to take part in campaigns get het up about primary candidates for ideological reasons. Sure, if there are huge ideological differences between candidates competing for the party election - say if Richard Russell and Hubert Humphrey had run for the Dem nomination in 1960 - then it makes sense to buy into one candidate or another in a big way.
But usually there aren't - even between say leftmost and rightmost of the current nine, let along between the candidates actually doing well in the polls - the differences just aren't that vast. Clearly there are some differences, of an ideological sort, between the candidates. But those differences would only really matter if Presidents themselves had tremendous direct power, and on the whole they just don't. Any Democratic president is going to have to deal with Congresses in which Republicans are either a majority or a large minority in both chambers, and where the Democrats are themselves divided in characteristic, relatively stable ways; with a Cabinet appointed partly to bring on board the party as a whole; with a bureaucracy which does not owe its existence to the President, containing complex structures which are difficult to manage and have competing, autonomous interests; with a world which wants American involvement but is suspicious of its ramifications; and so on. In the nine possible USAs that result from the primary season, the policy output difference consequent on ideological difference between President Sharpton and President Lieberman will really not be that big; and that between Presidents Kerry, Clark and Dean will be near-invisible.
(I stress this is not a DLC-type "choose a moderate" argument: I just think the output of Presidents is sufficiently constrained that a Keir Hardie administration would not be producing radically different output from a Joe Lieberman administration.)
Now, it's possible that activists get excited about Presidential candidates at this stage because they enjoy the symbolism, or they love being part of a movement, or they want some viewpoint to be taken seriously within the party regardless of who actually wins the nomination - for example, whether or not Deaniacs succeed, they will have made the Democrats take Iraq seriously and destroyed the 2002 party strategy of trying to ignore it.
But qua partisans, and qua idealogues, I would think pragmatism triumphs over everything else - not just picking someone who can win, but someone who is capable of being re-elected, someone who can win in a landslide, someone who can have coat-tails in Congress. And for this reason I am puzzled that the Dean people, and the Kerry people, and so on, care so much...