Saturday, November 20, 2004

9/11 Recommendations Stall Out In Congress

The effort to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 commission is apparently dead in the water, according to (at least until next session).

Though a couple of issues appear to be contributing to the hold up, the primary problem appears to be over immigration-related issues. Rep. James Sensenbrenner wants language in the bill that would
have forbidden states to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants; required refugees and those granted asylum to get driver's licenses that are annually renewed; and imposed what some immigrant advocates said were onerous identification requirements on immigrants seeking driver's licenses.

Forbidding states to give Driver's Licenses to illegal aliens is, if anything, counterproductive to homeland security. By getting these people "in the system," per se, we can more easily identify and track them if they are, indeed, breaking the laws. Pushing illegal immigrants further into the shadows of our society will only make it harder to police them.

It's nice that only three years after 9/11, Congress can finally get around to burying the bills that will keep America safe. I can see the slogan now: "The Republican Party: We Can Obstruct Congress WITHOUT the Democrats Help, Thank You Very Much!"

Why Are You Pushing Me Away?

As some of you know, I've transformed over the past few years from a hyper-liberal quasi-socialist to a moderate center-leftist. But at times, I still feel the tug of the left wing of my party calling me back. Since my centrist shift has been almost solely a function of national security issues (which, incidentally, are also why I'm radically opposed to the current administration), the "old" leftist stances, on social issues and (to a lesser extent) economic issues, still hold weight in my internal debates. At the same time, my disdain for party politics and my intensely pro-intervention position on foreign affairs keep me honest and moderated.

One of the more interesting thought games I've had with myself lately though is: "can a moderate Republican win my vote?" After all, presumably centrist moderate Republicans would appeal to many of my sensibilities: liberal on social issues, moderate on economic issues, and strong on national defense. I do have alot of respect for Republicans like Lincoln Chafee, John McCain, and Arlen Specter (though his recent prostration before the GOP leadership isn't helping his image in my eyes). And with my well known hatred of partisanship and blind party loyalty, it should presumably follow that I will vote for any candidate that appeals to my conscience, regardless of political affiliation. This election cycle, I was geniunely torn in the local state senate race, which pitted moderate incumbant Republican Ray Cox and seemingly moderate Democrat David Bly. I didn't decide until I was in the voting booth, but I ended up going for Bly, on the grounds that I preferred his tax policy (Cox's high rating from the National Taxpayers Union was worrisome to me) and, more importantly, that I didn't trust the Republican LEADERSHIP in the Minnesota congress.

This same logic applies nationally. I can respect individual Republican politicians, if they show some backbone. But voting for them means voting for Bill Frist and the ever-repulsive Tom DeLay, which I refuse to do. It isn't that I disagree with them more. Its that a) I can't trust the "moderates" to stand up to them or beat them in getting stuff done and b) the WAY they conduct business I find morally offensive (notably, neither of these caveates really applies to the Democratic leadership, which is far worse at silencing its moderates (or perhaps more tolerant, to be generous to them), and doesn't engage in nearly the same level of politically trickery as the GOP does (not that they have clean hands either, but their work pales in comparison)).

If you want the real reason that I probably will continue to vote straight Democratic party tickets for the near future, read this press statement by DeLay on the Bell ethics dismissal and "DeLay rule" vote. I almost didn't link to it, because I was literally shaking after I read it. I don't know if I've ever been that upset from reading a politicians remarks. I thought I couldn't underestimate DeLay's vileness, but I had. He is a LOATHESOME human being. I've discovered DeLay is my "anti-Obama." For the most part, I am jaded with politicians that I support, viewing it as a "lesser of two evils" deal. Obama was the first politician in a LONG time to actually inspire me when I listened to him. On the flip side, with politicians I oppose its gotten to the point where I'm more prone to depressed resignation than actual anger towards them. So DeLay is one of the rare politicans who can actually infuriate me on a regular basis.

Why are Republicans pushing people like me away by clinging to oppressive, virtually autocratic leaders like DeLay? Possibly its because they feel they don't need me. The current 50% + 1 philosophy of the GOP means that they not only are willing to piss off any unneeded centrists, but they actively TRY to so they can push a more radical conservative agenda while making the center and left seem irrelevant. In the long run, though, I don't think they can hold their coaltion together. It just isn't stable enough. The Republican party has no coherent ideology anymore, just blind feality to a ruling class committed to power at all costs. That scares me, but I have to believe that it isn't a tenable situation, lest I lose all faith in the democratic system. I could see myself voting for the moderate Republican philosophy, but I don't think the GOP represents it, or even listens to it, anymore. At least with the Democrats, I feel confident that my colleagues will listen to and consider what I have to say. As a disaffected moderate, that's all I can ask for.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Who is Ronnie Earle?

Who is Ronnie Earle? The easy answer is that he is the Prosecutor who has indicted several of Tom DeLay's political allies on money laundering and illegal contribution charges. Republicans claim he is partisan hack on a witchhunt. Democrats say he is tower of justice restoring integrity to our political system. In response to his actions, Republicans have modified their party rules so leaders indicted on felony charges can stay in power.

A commenter refers me to Powerline's thoughts on the matter.
"Ronnie Earle, the Democratic District Attorney in Travis County, Texas, is a notorious partisan who has a history of bringing politically-motivated indictments. His most infamous indictment was when he charged Kay Bailey Hutchison, then the Treasurer of Texas, with assault. Earle actually took this trumped-up case to trial, only to be humiliated when he had to dismisss the case during trial.

In September, Earle indicted three aides to Tom DeLay, accusing them of financial improprieties in connection with the Texas legislative elections in 2002. Earle alleges that the aides engaged in "money laundering." What happened is that a number of corporations, including Sears, made contributions to the Republican National Committee. The RNC made contributions to Republican legislative candidates, which corporations are not permitted to do."

They also note that Democrats don't have a similar rule forcing leaders to step down when slapped with felony indictments.

Last things first. That Democrats don't have a similar rule is shameful. It also doesn't absolve Republicans of their responsibility. That's all that needs to be said there. Whatever happened to "taking the high road"?

Now, on to Powerline's substance. First of all, even if Earle is a partisan, its not like Delay has an ethical clean slate. The man is one of the more ethically bankrupt politicians in America. I'm not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Second, even claims that Earle is just a partisan hack appear to be overstated. Apparently in his time as DA, he has prosecuted more Democratic officeholders than Republicans. At worst he is just a publicity hound, not motivated by a partisan agenda. But the Houston Chronicle--not a particularly liberal paper--has given a positive appraisal of his work, which would belie the claim that he only wants the limelight.

To be honest, the uproar over the rules change isn't really relevant. Maybe DeLay is innocent of these (as yet unlaid) charges, maybe he's guilty as sin. What isn't in dispute is that the man has no ethical compass and no moral scruples. That alone should be enough to knock him out of his post--if the Republican party possessed any political courage.

Race Against Time

One of the key lines of demarcation between Iraq war supporters and foes is what impact it will have on the war on terrorism as a whole. Republicans argue that it serves as a warning to terror-harboring states, and cite Libya as proof (Libya abandoned its nuclear program shortly after the Iraq war began). Liberals claim its a distraction or worse, and cite Osama bin Laden's continued--well, existance--as proof. Both sides have some truth to them, but there are two more issues that I think are relevant.

The first is my usual chorus about how promoting democracy and giving Iraqis a stake in their own future makes America seem like a less threatening presence. By showing we care about the world's problems, we're no longer an oppressive force illegitimatly sucking up the world's wealth and resources. Its the difference between evil titan and jolly green giant. Except that the US green giant is willing to stand up for right and justice. David Adnesik notes there is a historical link between promoting democracy and crushing illiberal insurgencies, which would suggest that a) it will be hard, but it is still possible, to defeat the insurgency and b) that the Bush administration's abysmal policy failures in this area are directly linked to the dire situation we find ourselves in. On the other hand, it is a powerful argument against leftist relativists who think that any sort of military intervention to promote democracy is doomed to failure, or that democracy is culturally alien to the middle east. Daniel Drezner noted in the Auguest 6th 2003 edition of The New Republic that:
"There evidence to support the claim that poor or non-Western democracies will revert to authoritarianism over time. To quote [Hoover Institute Fellow Larry] Diamond at greater length:

"[T]he overwhelming bulk of the states that have become democratic during the third wave [of democratization, from 1974-1991] have remained so, even in countries lacking virtually all of the supposed "conditions" for democracy. ... [O]nly 14 of the 125 democracies that have existed during the third wave have become authoritarian, and in nine of these, democracy has since been restored.

One of Diamond's favorite examples is Mali--a poor, landlocked, predominantly Muslim country that suffers from an adult literacy rate of less than 50 percent and an average life expectancy of less than 45 years. By Zakaria's logic, Mali is the last place in the world you'd expect democracy to take root. Yet the country has enjoyed a relatively stable, democratic government for over a decade. At a minimum, this suggests that [skeptics] may overstate the difficulty with which liberal values can be exported to the developing world.

But what of governments imposed via military occupation? Surely they're the exception to this optimistic rule. Actually, the empirical evidence of the last 50 years is rather evenly split on the question. Postwar Germany, Japan, Bosnia, and Kosovo are all, to varying degrees, democratic success stories; Somalia and Haiti are probably safely considered failures. (Let's be generous and say the jury is still out on Afghanistan.) Still, the more relevant point is that the key difference between the democratic haves and have-nots is not the conditions that prevailed prior to war; it's the occupiers' commitment to the democratization process once the fighting ends. In the words of a compelling new RAND Corporation study, America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq...:

'What principally distinguishes [successes from failures] are not their levels of Western culture, economic development, or cultural homogeneity. Rather, it is the level of effort the United States and the international community have put into their democratic transformations. In Germany and Japan, for example, substantial American aid reduced social, political, and other obstacles to the reconstitution of parliamentary politics and facilitated a transition to democracy. Nation-building, as this study illustrates, is a time- and resource-consuming effort.'"

In the September/October 2004 edition of Foreign Affairs, Joseph T. Siegle, Michael M. Weinstein, and Morton H. Halperin have a superb article entitled "Why Democracies Excel" that also explores this issue.

The second is an issue of time. When rogue nations are contemplating what they should do with their WMD programs post-Iraq, they can take two tactics. The first is the Libya model, IE, giving it up. This was the intended consequence, that the risk of maintaining WMD programs or terrorist sympathizes would be seen as too high, and thus we'd motivate proper behavior. The second response, however, is to accelerate these programs. North Korea serves as a model for this reaction. Despite posing a far greater threat to the US than Iraq ever did (by virtue of the Taepo-Dong missiles which can possibly hit the US with nuclear warheads), there was never any serious plan to invade the hermit state. Indeed, the US has barely managed to put together even a coherent policy towards NK. Other nations on the US hit list have undoubtedly noted that becoming a nuclear power is the fastest way to get the US to negotiate with butter, as opposed to guns.

"But David," my conservative readers are saying, "the US thought IRAQ had WMDs as well. And that didn't stop us from invading it!" True, but that overlooks some key issues. First of all, even though we did think Iraq had nuclear weapons, we knew that they had no method of delivering them to us. That minimizes the threat that the WMDs posed in the short-term, and makes the possibility of WMD use a relatively minimal argument on the ledger against intervention.

But beyond that lurks a deeper issue. Again, having fully functional nuclear weapons programs is a reasonably strong deterrant, certainly far stronger than what most rogue states could muster without them. And not having active WMD programs doesn't immunize a state from intervention (as Slobodan Milosevic can attest to). So the incentive for rogue states is to accelerate nuclear programs while the US is distracted in Iraq and thus can't do anything to stop it. By playing for time to forstall sanctions or other hostile action by the rest of the world, while simultanously putting weapons programs on "rush delivery," rogue states might hope to be able to construct a viable deterrent to the US before America can recover enough to stop it. Iran appears to be following this very model, taking advantage of US overstretch and delaying international action while continuing to pursue its weapons programs. The risk of inaction or delaying the programs far outweighs any risk to a full-speed ahead approach.

Once the genie of proliferation has been released from the lamp, its very difficult to stuff it back in. The clock has been set for WMD programs in states hostile to America. Now we must figure out how to beat them to the finish line.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Apocolypse Now

Immediately after the election, I wrote a dismal post-mortum in which I expressed pessimism towards any hope of creating an informed, issue-oriented electorate. Americans are too apathetic about the issues, they're too easily swayed by style and showbiz, they care too much about "character" and too little about content. I claimed that:
"The majority of Americans consider themselves moderates, but they aren't concerned with issues. They care about style. They want a candidate who matches their style, who makes them feel good. What did Clinton and Reagan have in common? They both made Americans feel good about themselves again. Now, when things are going well, this is an asset. But in times of trouble, it creates a disturbing catch-22, where incumbants are encouraged to pretend that problems don't exist so that voters feel good about themselves, and stick with status quo."

In such a world, I argued, there is little incentive for substantive discussion of issues and alot of incentive for demagoguery and slime attacks. And I was profoundly disheartened.

Then, with a little time to calm down, I stepped off the brink and said there was room for optimism. My dormant idealism came back, and I argued that while perhaps America has lost its way, it has not lost its heart. Eventually, the United States will remember its commitment to justice, tolerance, and equality, and will reject the poisonous division that has been foisted upon us by the peddlers of spite and partisanship.

Now, an article in The New Republic by Christopher Hayes has cast me back into gloom and doom mode.

Hayes spent time in Wisconsin talking to swing voters, and based on his experiences he came up with some--admittedly anecdotal--conclusions about the mind of the undecideds. And what he had to say was profoundly disheartening.
"A disturbing number of undecided voters are crypto-racist isolationists:...[A]mong undecided voters, I encountered a consistent and surprising isolationism--an isolationism that September 11 was supposed to have made obsolete everywhere but the left and right fringes of the political spectrum. Voters I spoke to were concerned about the Iraq war and about securing American interests, but they seemed entirely unmoved by the argument--accepted, in some form or another, by just about everyone in Washington--that the security of the United States is dependent on the freedom and well-being of the rest of the world.

In fact, there was a disturbing trend among undecided voters--as well as some Kerry supporters--towards an opposition to the Iraq war based largely on the ugliest of rationales. I had one conversation with an undecided, sixtyish, white voter whose wife was voting for Kerry. When I mentioned the "mess in Iraq" he lit up. "We should have gone through Iraq like shit through tinfoil," he said, leaning hard on the railing of his porch. As I tried to make sense of the mental image this evoked, he continued: "I mean we should have dominated the place; that's the only thing these people understand. ... Teaching democracy to Arabs is like teaching the alphabet to rats."...

That may have been the most explicit articulation I heard of this mindset--but it wasn't an isolated incident. A few days later, someone told me that he wished we could put Saddam back in power because he "knew how to rule these people." While Bush's rhetoric about spreading freedom and democracy played well with blue-state liberal hawks and red-state Christian conservatives who are inclined towards a missionary view of world affairs, it seemed to fall flat among the undecided voters I spoke with. This was not merely the view of the odd kook; it was a common theme I heard from all different kinds of undecided voters. Clearly the Kerry campaign had focus groups or polling that supported this, hence its candidate's frequent--and wince-inducing--America-first rhetoric about opening firehouses in Baghdad while closing them in the United States.

The worse things got in Iraq, the better things got for Bush: Liberal commentators, and even many conservative ones, assumed, not unreasonably, that the awful situation in Iraq would prove to be the president's undoing. But I found that the very severity and intractability of the Iraq disaster helped Bush because it induced a kind of fatalism about the possibility of progress. Time after time, undecided voters would agree vociferously with every single critique I offered of Bush's Iraq policy, but conclude that it really didn't matter who was elected, since neither candidate would have any chance of making things better. Yeah, but what's Kerry gonna do? voters would ask me, and when I told them Kerry would bring in allies they would wave their hands and smile with condescension, as if that answer was impossibly naive. C'mon, they'd say, you don't really think that's going to work, do you?
Undecided voters don't think in terms of issues: Perhaps the greatest myth about undecided voters is that they are undecided because of the "issues." That is, while they might favor Kerry on the economy, they favor Bush on terrorism; or while they are anti-gay marriage, they also support social welfare programs. Occasionally I did encounter undecided voters who were genuinely cross-pressured--a couple who was fiercely pro-life, antiwar, and pro-environment for example--but such cases were exceedingly rare. More often than not, when I asked undecided voters what issues they would pay attention to as they made up their minds I was met with a blank stare, as if I'd just asked them to name their favorite prime number.

The majority of undecided voters I spoke to couldn't name a single issue that was important to them. This was shocking to me. Think about it: The "issue" is the basic unit of political analysis for campaigns, candidates, journalists, and other members of the chattering classes. It's what makes up the subheadings on a candidate's website, it's what sober, serious people wish election outcomes hinged on, it's what every candidate pledges to run his campaign on, and it's what we always complain we don't see enough coverage of.

But the very concept of the issue seemed to be almost completely alien to most of the undecided voters I spoke to. (This was also true of a number of committed voters in both camps--though I'll risk being partisan here and say that Kerry voters, in my experience, were more likely to name specific issues they cared about than Bush supporters.) At first I thought this was a problem of simple semantics--maybe, I thought, "issue" is a term of art that sounds wonky and intimidating, causing voters to react as if they're being quizzed on a topic they haven't studied. So I tried other ways of asking the same question: "Anything of particular concern to you? Are you anxious or worried about anything? Are you excited about what's been happening in the country in the last four years?"

These questions, too, more often than not yielded bewilderment. As far as I could tell, the problem wasn't the word "issue"; it was a fundamental lack of understanding of what constituted the broad category of the "political." The undecideds I spoke to didn't seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief--not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.

To cite one example: I had a conversation with an undecided truck driver who was despondent because he had just hit a woman's car after having worked a week straight. He didn't think the accident was his fault and he was angry about being sued. "There's too many lawsuits these days," he told me. I was set to have to rebut a "tort reform" argument, but it never came. Even though there was a ready-made connection between what was happening in his life and a campaign issue, he never made the leap. I asked him about the company he worked for and whether it would cover his legal expenses; he said he didn't think so. I asked him if he was unionized and he said no. "The last job was unionized," he said. "They would have covered my expenses." I tried to steer him towards a political discussion about how Kerry would stand up for workers' rights and protect unions, but it never got anywhere. He didn't seem to think there was any connection between politics and whether his company would cover his legal costs. Had he made a connection between his predicament and the issue of tort reform, it might have benefited Bush; had he made a connection between his predicament and the issue of labor rights, it might have benefited Kerry. He made neither, and remained undecided.

In this context, Bush's victory, particularly on the strength of those voters who listed "values" as their number one issue, makes perfect sense. Kerry ran a campaign that was about politics: He parsed the world into political categories and offered political solutions. Bush did this too, but it wasn't the main thrust of his campaign. Instead, the president ran on broad themes, like "character" and "morals." Everyone feels an immediate and intuitive expertise on morals and values--we all know what's right and wrong. But how can undecided voters evaluate a candidate on issues if they don't even grasp what issues are?

Liberals like to point out that majorities of Americans agree with the Democratic Party on the issues, so Republicans are forced to run on character and values in order to win. (This cuts both ways: I met a large number of Bush/Feingold voters whose politics were more in line with the Republican president, but who admired the backbone and gutsiness of their Democratic senator.) But polls that ask people about issues presuppose a basic familiarity with the concept of issues--a familiarity that may not exist.

As far as I can tell, this leaves Democrats with two options: either abandon "issues" as the lynchpin of political campaigns and adopt the language of values, morals, and character as many have suggested; or begin the long-term and arduous task of rebuilding a popular, accessible political vocabulary--of convincing undecided voters to believe once again in the importance of issues. The former strategy could help the Democrats stop the bleeding in time for 2008. But the latter strategy might be necessary for the Democrats to become a majority party again."

My whole--my only--basis for optimism in America is a abiding belief that Americans both want to do the right thing and care enough to do the right thing. By all accounts, I think the former is true. In Oklahoma, for example, one of the reddest of the red states, an entire community banded together in order to protect a gay teenager who was faced with picketing, harassment, and intimidation by a radical anti-gay christian sect. They don't accept that homosexuality is moral. They voted in favor of a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and they hope the teenager will change his ways. But when faced--head on--with such unmitigated hate, with slogans such as "Fags Are Worthy of Death," they knew, deep in their hearts, that this was wrong. And they unified as one, and with a strong voice repudiated those whose ideology is based on fear and loathing. When Americans see the effects of injustice with their own eyes, when its impacting their friends, family, or neighbors, there is no people on earth who will unite faster and shout louder for justice. The problem is for the vast majority of Americans who never have to deal with these issues head on. If they cared enough to even glance at the issues, they might see that there are wrongs to be righted, battle yet to be won. But they don't care, and they can't be motivated. And as long as America sees the world this way, the Republican tactic of minimizing issues while maximizing fear will continue to win elections.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Soft on Crime

Republicans always hold themselves to the highest of ethical standrads. That's why, when faced with the possibilty of House Majority Leader Tom Delay's ethical problems turning into a felony indictment, they took strong and decisive action.

Current GOP rules dictate that if a member of the leadership is indicted for a crime that carries more than 2 years in prison, she/he shall temporarily be removed from the leadership post. Since DeLay's cohorts are looking at life in prison for money laundering charges, whatever crimes he might eventually get charged with probably will cross the two year threshold, which would require him to step down.

Naturally, when faced between the choice of protecting a powerful congressman or preserving a shred of institutional dignity, House Republicans chose the former. A proposed change by DeLay lackey Henry Bonilla (R-TX) would eliminate the offending rule, so that DeLay could continue to serve while under prosecution. (Link via Talking Points Memo)

Though this is sufficient for the short-term, Republican congressman are already crafting a bill to label the House of Representatives a federal prison so that DeLay can also continue to serve in the event he is convicted. An anonymous GOP staffer said the change would be necessary "so that the House isn't intimidated or influenced by such anti-democratic notions as rule of law and morality."

Monday, November 15, 2004

How to Piss off the Democrats by Really Really Trying

Tapped provides insight into the Republican theory of passing bills: If a Democrat's voting for it, then something's wrong:
"FORCED INTO IRRELEVANCE: In a post otherwise addressing a slightly different question, Mark Schmitt makes this observation:
"I've noted in the past the tendency in Republican congressional politics, particularly in the House, to take pride in slipping something through with the bare minimum number of votes. The last tax cut bill was an example.
That this is the congressional strategy has begun to seem clear to me, although it's a radical innovation. Hastert and DeLay's insight seems to be that a bill that gets 218 votes in the House is just as much the law as one that gets 430. And for every vote they add on to the necessary minimum majority, they might have to compromise in some unnecessary way, whether with Democrats or their own fiscal conservatives. In other words, they see every vote over a bare majority as the equivalent of leaving money on the table or overbidding in an auction."

I don’t really have much special insight to offer here, but I thought this passage from Lou Dubose and Jan Reid’s new book on Tom DeLay was helpful in shedding a bit of light on the Republicans' 50%+1 strategy in Congress:
"DeLay prefers a polarized House in which the adversarial relationship between Republicans and Democrats is institutionalized. 'A number of times the Republican majority could pass a bill by 300 votes,' said a veteran House staffer who has worked for the Democratic leadership. 'A bill that has that type of potential. Then they yank it to the conservative side so it passes 220-210...There’s a mentality in the Republican leadership that if a significant number of Democrats support a bill somehow it’s tainted.
'Part of it goes back to the K Street thing, where they want to be able to say to their funders that the only people who can deliver anything for you are Republicans.' If House Republicans can make their Democratic counterparts irrelevant to the process of passing the nation’s laws, they can make them irrelevant to big political contributors."

The hardnosed, 'why compromise at all?' mentality that Schmitt describes is certainly a big part of it, but just as clearly there appears to be a strategic component to the House GOP’s deliberate sidelining of Democratic cooperation or input: The 50%+1 strategy, just like the K Street Project, is in part designed to help render the Democrats a permanent congressional minority. At all times, it's part of the Republican leadership’s decision-making and legislative calculus to try to lend substance to DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy’s characterization of the Democrats as simply 'irrelevant.'"

A superb example of this was the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, better known as "Laci and Conner's Law." The underlying premise of the law was unanimously supported: Murderers who also kill a fetus when killing a pregnant women should be punished more harshly than if they just kill a women. Obviously, this was an idea that garned support across party lines. In terms of achieving this objective, there were two ways to go about it when writing the law. Either 1) You could make the murder of a fetus while killing a pregenant women an aggrevating factor to the crime, which would allow for upward adjustment of sentences or 2) you could make the fetus a "person" under law, so that the crime is actually two counts of murder instead of one (which also would allow for harsher sentences). The UVVA used the latter tactic.

The problem with this is that by defining a fetus as a "person," there are obvious overtones to the abortion debate. While the bill specifically exempted abortion from its scope, many Democrats worried that the GOP was trying to create a "legislative trail" defining a fetus as a person in order to provide the grounds for overruling Roe v. Wade. Hence, many Democrats were reluctant to vote for the bill in that form. In order to rectify this, Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) submitted what's known as "the Lofgren Amendment" (officially the "Motherhood Protection Act of 2001"), which had the same goal as the UVVA but adapted the former (aggrevating factor) tactic in order to achieve it. By not making the fetus a person, it neatly sidesteps the abortion debate while still increasing the punishment for those who kill a fetus along with the mother. In other words, the Lofgren Amendment is a plan that everyone can agree on, while the UVVA is a plan that only some people can agree on.

Needless to say, the House rejected the Lofgren amendment 229-196, then passed the UVVA 252-172. Democrats uneasy about the abortion implications were caught in a tough spot, to go on the record as opposing "Laci and Conner's Law" is a PR disaster. Many Democrats in swing districts had no political choice but to support the final bill, reservations not withstanding.

The point here isn't whether or not a fetus is a person. That particular debate most certainly needs to occur, but it should occur directly and not via underhanded measures in unrelated bills. The point is that, given a choice on whether or not to achieve the same objective bipartisanly or unipartisanly, the GOP leadership chose the latter. The best thing that can be said about the Republican tactics on this issue is that they deliberately and needlessly alienated the entire Democratic house legislation for partisan political gain. The worst case is that they did all that AND tried to endrun around the discursive channels for the abortion debate. Neither should be tolerable, but unfortunately both are emblematic of Tom DeLay's style of doing business.

The Progressive Constitution

A group of academic headliners have started a blog which expounds what a progressive constitution in the year 2020 would look like. While I'm not a fan of using the constitution to achieve partisan political purposes *cough*FMA*cough*, these folks seem on the level and have some interesting ideas. Very cool.

Volokh Conspiracy with the link, and it also points you to the forthcoming synopsium (by the American Constitution Society, who have their own blog here) upon which the blog is based. Even more very cool.

Rock and a Hard Place

Well, the Fallujah campaign is winding down. TNR's Iraq'd blog has the post-mortum. On the one hand, the US job is far from done. Fallujah may have been a step in the right direction, but it has also enflamed anti-US sentiment amongst the Sunnis. And our anti-insurgent strategy is rapidly starting to resemble whack-a-mole, bringing the bludgeon of US power down on the insurgents in Fallujah, only to watch them pop up in Mosul, then Sadr City...oy vey. Iraq'd notes:
"According to the Los Angeles Times, the U.S. military command met yesterday in Baghdad "to craft a strategy for using the momentum from a seemingly successful anti-insurgent battle in Fallouja to pacify other embattled Iraqi cities"; already air strikes have begun in Baquba. It may very well be that strikes at other insurgent bases can tamp down the insurgency during the two months before elections, but it is unlikely to destroy it: First, while the U.S. had months to prepare the invasion of Falluja, the inflammation of other cities, including once-a-model-of-success Mosul, appears to have caught the U.S. military somewhat off guard and will subsequently prompt a more ad hoc tactical strategy to reclaim those cities, if such operations occur. Second, it's unclear whether the 140,000 U.S. troops can sustain an operations tempo comparable to what seizing Falluja required. Third, reconstructing Falluja is a massive undertaking of a sort that the U.S. has proven unable to handle over 20 months of occupation, and to expand those needs around the country at this late hour represents a serious strain on resources. And finally, the elections themselves are extremely likely to represent a new level of Sunni disaffection with a now-formally Shia government, which risks replenishing the ranks of the insurgency."

So the US has to stay in Iraq to work out all of these problems, right? Well, yes, and no. While Allawi's government isn't really strong enough to stand on its own two feet yet, and certainly isn't competent enough to solve these problems on its own, it also isn't strong enough to continue to have a US presence. Iraq'd continues:
"With an insurgency on its doorstep, its long-deferred-and-now-realized aspirations for ruling Iraq at risk, and the feebleness of the Iraqi security forces on display, the Shia will have to decide what their relationship to the U.S. occupation is. Can it afford to ask the U.S. to leave--or to restrict missions against the insurgency in some fashion, or to set a date for ultimate withdrawal? Can it afford not to ask the U.S. to leave? There's good reason to believe that Dong's warning of woe unto the government that risks becoming a U.S. proxy won't apply so much to an elected Shia leadership: Unlike Ngo Dinh Diem or Iyad Allawi, the slate of candidates organized and blessed by Sistani will carry true legitimacy among the Shia who vote them in. But the longer the U.S. stays, the greater the risks that the average anti-occupation Shia will view the second interim government as too closely allied with the United States. And it can also become a rallying cry for the insurgency: Shia and American infidels have conspired to destroy Iraq, etc. Unless the Shia are prepared to wage and sustain (and presumably defeat) a civil war against the Sunni insurgents, they will have to figure out a way to cleave at least some Sunnis from the insurgency politically at a time when their very political ascendancy is most inflammatory to the Sunnis. (One way of doing this--pointing to Shia condemnation of the invasion of Falluja as an indicator of good faith--appears to be a foreclosed option now.) In terms of accomplishing that task, the U.S. presence in Iraq looks like a liability."

So let me get this straight. If we leave Iraq, then the insurgents re-entrenchment in Mosul, Hawijah, Sammara, and other cities will give them a strong base of attack against the Allawi government. Continuing Sunni resentment will prevent even an elected government from having legitimacy, so a civil war results. US interventionism is thus discredited, and chaos ensues. If we stay in Iraq, resentment towards US presence undercuts the legitimacy of the Allawi regime and pushes anti-occupation Shiites away from the government. At the same time, enraged Sunnis will also continue to press the attack, crippling the weakened Iraqi state. US interventionism is still discredited, and chaos still ensues.

Freedom is on the march...

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Tragic Mistake

In his review of Noah Feldman's new book "What We Owe Iraq", Robert Kagan (Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) makes a trechant point: (link via Andrew Sullivan)
"The most tragic [of the Bush administration's failures] was the failure in the early days after the invasion to fulfill the 'first duty' of an occupying power: providing basic security. Much has been made of the looting that occurred immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, but Feldman notes the essential point: by allowing the looting to proceed, American forces sent a clear message 'that the United States was not in charge, and that no one else was, either.' Iraqis had to seek security for themselves in what was for a time a state of anarchy, and it was hardly surprising that they turned to their own kind for protection. Feldman says that it was not 'ancient' ethnic and religious differences that empowered armed militias, but the human instinct for survival. 'Had there been half a million U.S. troops on the ground,' he insists, 'it is highly likely that there would have been little looting, no comparable sense of insecurity and therefore a reduced need for denominational identities to become as dominant as they quickly did.'"

As tempting as it is to pass this off as just another mistake in the Bush administration's litany of failures (and it is that too!), there also is room for hope. Professor Feldman apparently has devoted alot of his scholarly attention to the notion that religious, devout muslims hold the key to democratic reform. If that is the case, and the secretarian divides that currently are fueling the conflict are not inherent to the situation, the possibilty of creating a democratic government seems far more likely. Tough, but possible. I can only hope that the Bush administration reverses its trend of mistakes and misjudgments and seizes whatever oppurtunities come forward to make the dream of so many Iraqis a reality, because failure is not an option.

War of Liberation

John Quiggin wades into the merits of describing the Iraq war as a "war of liberation." To summarize it, he agrees that Iraq qualified as a "war of liberation," but then gives several reservations to the premise of a "war of liberation" itself:
"The problem, rather, is with the whole idea of a “war of liberation”. Just as with the Christian doctrine of “just war”, the doctrine is so loose that it can easily be claimed by both sides in the same war. Most wars of liberation, like most wars of all kinds, have done more harm than good.
Another important observation, particularly relevant in the case of Iraq, is that, even if you conceive of a war as one of liberation, it is almost always necessary to ally yourself with people who have less noble aspirations. Nationalist Iraqis, seeking only the withdrawal of the occupying forces, have inevitably co-operated to some extent (how much is not clear) with terrorist jihadis, who want to use Iraq as a base for their own global operations. Supporters of the American war effort find themselves in coalition with all sorts of unsavory parties, from thugs like Allawi and (until a few months ago) crooks like Chalabhi, to anti-Muslim crusaders in the West. As a rule, the least scrupulous members of a coalition are the most successful in pursuing their goals."

These are all valid concerns. More than valid, actually, they are concerns which must be addressed seriously and comprehensively at the outset of the war. Is this really a "war of liberation," or is it a pretext for US realist interests? Who are we allying with, and are we going to be forced to cut a deal with the devil? How can we insure that the local populace won't turn against us? The fact that these questions exist does not, in itself, knock down the justification for "wars of liberation" in principle. The fact that these questions were ignored, however, is a powerful indictment of how the Bush administration chose to prosecute this war.

One of the sadder, and more dangerous, consequencs of Bush's bungling the war is that it might taint any further US humaniterean interventions in a way Somalia never could. Already, pro-war liberals such as myself have come under a lot of fire for their position. We are accused of being "Bush-lite," "sellouts," "imperialists," or worse. Politically, the risk that Democrats will attempt to become a party of isolationism and foreign weakness is great, though not inevitable. More important than political ramifications for any one party is the prospect that the US will partially or entirely withdraw from the global sphere. Obviously the US will never totally cut itself off from the world, we're far too intertwined and have too much at stake in global institutions to be able to practically do that. But an America that refuses to take military action to defend the world, or that foists that obligation entirely upon the UN and regional actors, is very feasible. This is a scary possibilty. Neither the UN nor any regional body has shown the political will, past propensity, or pragamatic capability to defuse conflict situations. The risk is that the world will intervene "just enough" to satisfy its obligations and soothe its conscience, while never devoting the resources necessary to actually stabilize restless warzones and rebuild shattered communities.

A world in which the global elites ignore the pain and suffering of the periphery is a world that will forever be buffetted by terrorism and backlash. The "fingers in the dike" that are preventing 3rd world resentment from exploding into a spate of violence against their more fortunate cohorts are twofold. The first is the overwhelming power disparity between the two regions. This hedge grows weaker every day, since WMD proliferation and terror tactics can neutralize traditional military power gaps. Jack Snyder, Professor of International Relations at Columbia University's Institute of War and Piece Studies points out that
"Precisely because America is so strong, weak states on America's hit list may increasingly conclude that weapons of mass destruction joined to terror tactics are the only feasible equalizer to its power. Despite America's aggregate power advantages, weaker opponents can get access to outside resources to sustain this kind of cost-imposing resistance. Even a state as weak and isolated as North Korea has been able to mount a credible deterrent..."["Imperial Temptations," The National Interest No. 71 (Spring 2003)
The relatively cheap availabilty of the components of WMDs makes nuclear/chemical/biological blackmail a reasonably foreseeable tactic by nations who otherwise could be marginalized or ignored. The prospect of even one nuclear weapon being set off on US soil probably will be enough to at least deter any overtly hostile US actions. And the use WMDs by non-state actors (like Al-Qaeda), who cannot be easily retailiated against and certainly can't be destroyed by a WMD counterattack, should be a sobering prospect. If proliferation becomes a reality and WMDs break loose from their relatively narrow (current) containment, US military hegemony will no longer be enough to protect us from harm.

The second "finger" is the perception, however frail, that the world does care, at some level, about the plight of the global periphery and will work to alleviate it. International institutions such as the UN, where the lowliest nations stand as equals with the US, Britian, and other powers, have done much to convince the global poor that they too are members of the world community, and as such they will be cared and provided for. If the US is seen as abandoning what--to the rest of the world--is a solemn commitment to work for the betterment of mankind, a sense of betrayal will quickly emerge, likely to be followed by resentment and hatred. With nothing to lose, the global poor will increasingly attack the US and the West as a protest against unfair and inequitable global policies. US withdrawal from global affairs is thus doubly dangerous: It increases the propensity of people to commit terrorism, while at the same time severely hampering our ability to maintain our military hegemony (by engaging in aggressive counterproliferation efforts).

This helps explain some of my outrage toward President Bush. When I tell local Republicans that I oppose Bush because I support the war in Iraq and an interventionist US foreign policy, they tend to stare at me agape. But it really is a perfectly sensible position. If one believes that actions such as the invasion in Iraq are (hopefully rarely) necessary actions to take in order to maintain a secure and just world, the fact that President Bush has made it unlikely that the US will ever take such an action again should be profoundly troubling. Somehow, the US is going to need to salvage its international credibilty in order to continue taking such actions, but Bush's needless arrogance and refusal to admit any error has made this well-nigh impossible. And if Iraq, God forbid, ends in a failure, no amount of US diplomacy or incentives will convince the world that such interventions are valid or advisable. President Bush's policies have put us on the edge of disaster, and unfortunately his tunnelvision and removal from reality only hasten the approaching catastrophe.