Wednesday, December 31, 2003


As anyone who's ever attended a city council meeting or watched a local planning commission session on the public-access channel can attest, a lot of things is politics are boring, irrelevant and/or incomprehensible to any but those with a very particular interest in a topic.

And most of the issues that are of general interest and importance are subject to a large degree of manipulation, obfuscation, demagoguery, diversion of attention, postponement, co-optation or various other forms of finnessing and finagling.

But some of them present some pretty stark choices that are hard to avoid and offer a limited set of options.  The Valerie Plame leak investigation is one of them. Someone in or close to the White House committed a serious crime in exposing her publicly as a CIA agent, and did so out of petty political spite. The Bush Administration has done about all it can do to hide the incident from public scrutiny. But the nature of the crime and the CIA's strong institutional interest in seeing it solved will make any outcome other than a credible criminal indictment a scandal. At the minimum, it will be a serious embarrassment to the Administration. And it could very well open up a whole range of issues related to the "weapons of mass destruction in Iraq" scam.

Another situation with similar dilemmas is the trial of Saddam Hussein. The Christian Science Monitor's Weblog for 12/31/03 focuses on that topic and provides a number of good links. Anything other than a public trial under some sort of international supervision will cause problems in itself because of worldwide alarm at the unilateralist policies of the Bush Administration. And any trial, even a Star Chamber version held in secret, will inevitably produce a good deal of publicity about the past dealings of the United States in Iraq.

Revelations about individuals and companies involved may be more-or-less entertaining. But more serious will be the questions it will raise about just what is the United States strategy toward militant Islam? Because we backed Saddam's Iraq in the 1980s as a balance against radical Islam.

Cover That Almanac With Duct Tape!

It seems to me the fact that the "weapons of mass destruction" claim in Iraq turned out to be so completely bogus has had a major effect on the level of war fever in the US. Of course, some grass-roots Republicans are in a constant state of war fever, year in and year out.

But one sign of returning sobriety is the fact that more and more people are asking pragmatic questions about homeland defense issues. The Huntsville [AL] Times editorialized on 12/31/03 about the terror-alert system and the idiotic directive to local police to watch out for people with almanacs, the goofiest idea since duct-tape:

The odd color-coding of terrorist possibilities that no one understands or can explain has undercut the credibility of the Department of Homeland Security. Now, the FBI has gone the Department one better - or one worse.  ...

It may be pointless to try to bring reason to the thought process that suggests that The Old Farmers Almanac and people who carry it are greater threats than anyone else, but let's give it a try:

Wouldn't road maps be even more helpful to people planning attacks?

Can't you find out more up-to-date information about the weather from television or - gasp! - newspapers than from The World Almanac?

Wouldn't a potential terrorist avail himself or herself of Internet data rather than stopping in a local bookstore to buy the 2004 edition of this perennially popular reference book?

In a free country, information that would help terrorists is available to anyone. You become more secure if you live in an armed camp, but even that's not totally secure. And it's certainly not America.

And by the way: The same day this information came to light, a drunk stole a bus in New York City and a pilot with a criminal record buzzed the Statue of Liberty before a law enforcement helicopter escorted him to an airfield.

Neither was carrying an almanac. Each could have inflicted damage on innocent people.

Law enforcement didn't prevent the bus theft and belatedly discovered the wayward pilot.

Was that because officers were too busy reading cockamamie bulletins from the FBI?

Dumb and Dumberer

When I first starting reading this story:

'Dumb' cross-burning botched from the get-go Atlanta Journal-Constitution 12/31/03

I thought, this could probably provide a good example of how "respectable" racists can use "low-class" varieties as an alibi, to criticize the guys who actually wave Confederate flags while the critics have Confederate flags in their hearts.

But I actually wound up just laughing at what a bunch of doofuses these guys were, and marveling at the tangled stories of the characters involved. Eva Hurst is the daughter of a proud Klansman, now deceased. But Eva's daughter is dating a man who is half white, half African-American. So these six guys thought they would burn a cross in Eva's yard to intimidate her daughter.

So these brave warriors of the Master Race came out one night and boldly set a cross on fire in Eva's yard. But their training as guerrilla fighters was apparently not very advanced:

But moments after the fire was lit, one intruder panicked and called 911. The woods surrounding the Dade County house were dry, Hurst recalled, "and they thought they might burn down the elderly couple right next to me."

The phone call led the FBI and local investigators to six men, who were indicted Tuesday on federal civil rights charges.

"They should be on the 'world's dumbest criminals' TV show -- burning a cross, then calling the law on themselves," Hurst said. "They didn't scare anyone. They just messed themselves up."

And take a look at the photos of these prime specimens who were out to defend the purity of the white race.

If these guys had gotten hold of one of those Texas cyanide bombs, they would most likely have gassed themselves. Police would probably have wondered if it was a cult-suicide kind of thing.

Wesley Clark in Nashville

If Wesley Clark gets the Democratic Presidential nomination, he isn't likely to carry any Southern states except Florida and possibly his native Arkansas, though it's possible he'll be competitive in Tennessee. The same is true with Howard Dean, who is arguably more conservative than Clark.

But Clark certainly seems more comfortable in connecting with Southern voters. While Dean has been embarrassingly awkward talking about the Confederate flag and saying he'll put more references to Jesus in his speeches in the South. Dean seemed to have some idea that he could sidestep the Confederate flag issue in South Carolina the way John McCain tried to do in the 2000 Republican campaign.

This report from the Nashville Tennessean (12/31/03) shows how Clark delivered his message on a campaign stop there:

Clark likened his faith and values to those of Tennesseans, saying he grew up getting ''your fill in faith'' — attending Sunday school, 11 o'clock service, Sunday night service, singing in the choir and Wednesday night Baptist training.

He also touched on another issue close to the hearts of many Southerners, saying he caught bass and crappie and hunted with his father on weekends.

Clark blamed Bush for missteps in the war on terror, saying the president did not do enough to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.

Bush was wrong to lead America into war by saying Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and connecting deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to terrorist Osama bin Laden, said Clark, who spent 34 years in the U.S. Army.

Clark's exit strategy would be to put Iraqis in charge and deploy U.S. forces in Iraq through NATO so fellow nations would have more incentive to get involved, he said.

But his campaign speech centered mostly on the loss of jobs during Bush's tenure, saying 8.8 million Americans are out of work.

Anyone who grew up Southern Baptist (as I did) will especially appreciate the reference to Wednesday night prayer meeting.


Tuesday, December 30, 2003

American Patriots and the Confederate Flag

Wesley Clark took his "grits tour" to Jackson, MS, yesterday. He was asked during his speech about the Confederate flag.  According to the account from AP in the Biloxi Sun-Herald (12/30/03):

Clark was interrupted early in his Jackson speech by Jim Giles, a former congressional and gubernatorial candidate, who yelled: "Do you support the Confederate flag, being a Southerner?"

Clark barely paused and said: "I'll get to that question in just a minute."

Later, Clark held an American flag and said: "I'm proud of what our country stands for. We stand for patriotism. We stand for that American flag - not the Confederate flag. This flag."

That won loud applause from the diverse crowd of whites and blacks.

This article also quotes my friend and former professor Bob McElvaine of Millsaps College, a long-time Dean supporter and also a prominent critic of neo-Confederate posturing.

The Jim Giles quoted as the Confederate heckler has a Web site, where one can participate in a discussion forum on "the issues of the day related to White politics." What the Confederate flag means to him can be inferred accurately enough from this statement of 12/06/03 which appears on his Web site:

Be clear on this essential point though. I said recently, “Of the two we suffer more from Negro-lovers than we do Negroes because without the Negro-lovers, the Negroes are no problem.” Likewise the same is true in regard to Jews; of the two we suffer more from Jew-lovers than we do Jews because without the Jew-lovers, the Jews are no problem.

Giles got 31 votes in his 2002 run for Congress.

Monday, December 29, 2003

Iraq War: Fighting Guerrilla War

Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information describes a basic problem in the current US approach in Iraq: The Second End to Major Hostilities? 12/23/03 (.pdf file):

The occupation has been converting what were once welcoming, neutral, or merely taciturn Iraqis – for now mostly Sunnis -- into willing irregular fighters protected by a population that is either hostile and bitterly anxious for the Americans to be gone or simply offended and, for now, seeing no alternative to waiting for the Americans to be gone.

It started with the looting back in May, when our forces – their number inadequate to the task – were ordered to stand by and watch as Iraqi society disintegrated. It continued with the lawlessness exacerbated by American troops responding to guerrilla attacks as if they were on a conventional battlefield and hunting down the enemy as if he were bandits isolated from the population. Apartment buildings riddled with holes from American machine guns, homes bombed from the air based on a tipster’s whisper, relatives imprisoned to help us find people beyond Saddam our intelligence can’t locate, and our soldiers blaring rock music while they bulldoze centuries-old groves of date and citrus trees: they tell us such insults are the exigencies of war. They also expand the ranks of a broader resistance and strengthen its resolve. ...

Iraq is not Vietnam, but we need to heed old lessons. After the American defeat in that war, a U.S. Army officer remarked to a North Vietnamese that his forces never defeated the American Army in a major tactical engagement. The North Vietnamese responded, "That may be true, but it is also irrelevant." Guerrilla wars are won and lost at the moral and strategic levels. The tactical fighting is an extension of the higher conflict; in fact, how tactical engagements are fought is at least as important as whether they are won.


The Texas WMDs

Another major newspaper devoted a news article to the Texas terrorism story that I've mentioned previously.

The terror threat at home, often overlooked Christian Science Monitor 12/29/03

David Neiwert, a journalist who follows the far right, deserves a big part of the credit for keeping this story in the news. Neiwert has a long, thought-provoking post at his Orcinus Weblog on why the Justice Department may be de-emphasizing this case: Marketing TerrorFor those interested in how the real law-enforcement fight against terrorism is going, his post is a valuable but disturbing contribution. From Neiwert's post:

Think, if you will, about the different kinds of terror at work here. The war against international terror plays out on a global stage, and as it's been waged so far by this administration, in remote and exotic locales. When Bush invokes the "war on terror," it revolves around images of Arab fanatics and desert combat. ...

This is a peculiar, amorphous terror to which we as individuals feel only remotely or vaguely connected. The attacks of Sept. 11 are raised to remind us it can strike here, but the source of the terror is something that seems distant and disattached to us. The less concrete it is, the more vague the potential response. Thus Saddam Hussein can be conflated with Osama bin Laden as a threat to America and an entire war campaign constructed around his role in "the war on terror," though it is becoming increasingly clear he had little if any role in the Sept. 11 attacks.

This is a highly marketable kind of terrorism, in the sense that its potential threat can be invoked at any time to justify an entire panoply of political moves, as well as to impugn the patriotism of your opponents. This sort of "war on terror" doesn't require any real sacrifices on the part of the public -- unless, of course, you happen to draw the unlucky Gold Star -- but being on the Right Side is easy, since the Enemy is The Other. He isn't The Guy Next Door.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Why There Will Always Be Stock Market Bubbles

This pretty much explains it (from Business Week 12/29/03 issue):

Investors seem to have been reading the headlines about mutual-fund abuses, judging from the increase (to 50%, from 42%) in the share who disagree that small investors can do as well as big investors in the stock market. On the other hand, many remain convinced that they can beat the pros and their fellow dabblers. An overwhelming 75% are confident that the stocks or mutual funds they pick will beat the market averages. That's up from 64% last year. "It's like what Samuel Johnson said about second marriages -- 'the triumph of hope over experience,"' says Laszlo Birinyi Jr., president of Birinyi Associates Inc., a stock market research firm in Westport, Conn.

Also the triumph of hope of the continually updated warnings of, among many others, Burton Malkiel, author of A Random Walk Down Wall Street, Completely Revised and Updated Edition (2003).

Iraq War: The Word "Mercenary" is Disappearing from the English Vocabulary, I Guess

Via the Today in Iraq Weblog for 12/28/03, this article talks about the private cops and soldiers in Iraq: Iraq turns into bonanza for private security firms Sify News (India) 12/28/03.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq has sunk into what the United States has characterised as "low intensity warfare" carried out by "desperate" former regime loyalists and "foreign terrorists".

Private security firms jumped in, turning the country into a magnet for veterans of guerrilla wars in Africa, Latin America and Northern Ireland and cops who worked America's meanest streets. And all of them are mainly motivated by cold hard cash.

"It is about finances first and foremost," said the [anonymous] British advisor, refusing to disclose details of his own remuneration. But he said that the starting monthly salary for security advisors in Iraq was about 10,000 dollars, more than double the going rate in Britain, and not counting expenses and extras. ...

Coming to grips with the number of security firms operating throughout Iraq and the exact nature of their missions is next to impossible. The biggest players in Iraq's security bonanza are US firms ArmorGroup and Haart and the British Control Risks Group (CR), and Erinys and Olive.

That is without mentioning the private armies employed by the likes of oil firm Halliburton and its unit Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), Bechtel and power giant General Electric, who are the biggest beneficiaries of Iraq's multi-billion dollar rebuilding contracts.

They're called "advisors" now? Whatever happened to the old terms like "mercenaries" and "soldiers of fortune"? And when you read down to the last paragraph, we hear the British "advisor" talking about how unreliable the locals are for security (my emphasis):

"They are not disciplined, you train them then the following week they go to 'Inshallah' because they have no white eye looking over at them," he added.


Iraq War: Good News from Iraq

This article contains one item that I think is an unqualified piece of good news: Attacks Force Retreat From Wide-Ranging Plans for Iraq Washington Post 12/28/03.

An unwillingness to assume other risks has also scuttled, at least temporarily, plans to overhaul a national food rationing program that was a cornerstone of Hussein's welfare state. Several senior officials want to replace monthly handouts of flour, cooking oil, beans and other staples -- received by more than 90 percent of Iraqis -- with a cash payment of about $15. Although the proposal has the enthusiastic support of economic conservatives in the occupation authority, concerns about the logistics have put the effort on hold.

"It's a great idea that the academics thought up, but it wasn't in tune with the political realities," said a U.S. official familiar with discussions of the issue. "We have to look at what we gain versus what we risk. Right now, we don't need to be adding any more challenges to those we already have."

This was always an insane plan, to scuttle a program that was successfully keeping people fed right in the middle of winter. It's crack-brained schemes like that one that gives credibility to the nickname Steve Gilliard has hung on Bremer's occupation authority, "Young Republicans Abroad."

Appointing Republican hacks to staff the CPA who can't speak Arabic and who don't know jack about Iraq or the Middle East, was bound to lead to ridiculous ideas like that. "Let's apply 'economic shock-treatment' to the food distribution system in the middle of winter during a nasty insurgency in a country with 60% unemployment!" Only some Republican free-market zealot could have come up with a fool idea like that. The fact that Viceroy Jerry Bremer actually planned to implement it is truly frightening.


Bipartisan Criticism of the Terror Alert System

Making the kind of bipartisan statement of concern for the good of the country that seems to be becoming increasingly rare, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security joined in criticizing the current color-coded system of terror alerts: Lawmakers Urge Terror Alert Changes AP 12/28/03

Both Republican Christopher Cox and Democrat Jim Turner are worried about the boy-who-cried-wolf effect. "I think we always have to worry about scaring people to death," Cox said.

Thomas "says refining the alert system so that specific locations or industries are targeted will help keep people from tuning out the threat warnings when they're issued."

"We thought that over time if we continue to have this general alert system that people would begin to ignore the alert, and even states and localities and local officials would find that it would be hard to justify the increased expense," Turner said.

"Because it does cost states and local governments hundreds of thousands of dollars every time the alert level is raised, I think we owe it to local governments to be more specific when possible," he added.

The committee is considering bipartisan legislation that would make these refinements.

This is something where Congressional oversight is badly needed. I hope Congress presses for some needed changes. Perhaps more importantly, I hope they are exercising real oversight on what the justification for the alerts are and what the verifiable results are.

Anthrax (Suspicious Story) Alert

I happened to see this item in the conservative Washington Times (aka the Moonie Times), which is, as they used to say in the 19th century, close to the Administration: Anthrax Terror 12/26/03. It tells us that, contrary to credible previous reports that the anthrax used in the still-unsolved 2001 attacks was probably diverted by an insider from US weapons programs: "U.S. officials with access to intelligence reports tell us the information showing a terrorist link to the anthrax-filled letters sent by mail in the weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks is not conclusive. But it is persuasive."

Then in the New York Times for 12/28/03, the infamous Judith Miller reports: U.S. Has New Concern About Anthrax Readiness. I've posted before about "General Judy's" truly bizarre professional story. It's one of the great mysteries of present-day journalism how she's still allowed to write and publish stories for the New York Times, the so-called "paper of record."

I don't know what this means. I've become so skeptical of General Judy's work that just seeing this story reminded me of what President Truman once said when a reporter asked him about one of Senator Joe McCarthy's endless charges (quoting from memory here): "If that fellow McCarthy said it, it's a d****d lie, you can be sure of that."

Now, it's always possible that some of what's in these two stories might be true. But the fact that one comes from the Washington Times and one from General Judy just tells me that some faction in the Administration is pushing some notion about a new level of terrorist threat from anthrax. Until I see some information from more reliable news reports, I'm witholding judgment about the facts.

I did do a quick search in Yahoo! News and in the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times for other stories on the supposed new angle on the 2001 anthrax attack that the Washington Times reported, and didn't find anything.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

Iraq War: How Much "Will" Is Needed?

I was somewhat surprised to see a comment in Sunday's Washington Post by Lt. Col. Andrew F. Krepinevich (ret.) of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis that seemed to say he thought things were going fine in Iraq, and that the big question was the will of the American people to stick it out. So I looked up a prewar (02/04/03) paper of his on the Iraq War: Preemption in Iraq (pdf file), which gives a better view of what he meant that the "will" of the public needs to sustain (my emphasis):

<< It is also important to emphasize that a large and sustained US military presence could be required in Iraq for many years after the end of the [conventional] war. ... But even under the best of circumstances, the US presence in Iraq is likely to dwarf the size of the US presence in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans and elsewhere. Furthermore, numerous observers, including many in the Bush Administration, have, in the past, strongly criticized those operations for their cost and purported negative impact on US military readiness.

<< Moreover, while it is possible that only a relatively small US peacekeeping and occupation force would be needed in Iraq over the long term, it is also possible that a very sizable US presence, perhaps as many as 100,000 or more troops, would need to be stationed in Iraq for a period of years. Much would depend on the extent to which US friends and allies would be willing to contribute to the operation. And much would also depend on the nature of US goals for Iraq. The more ambitious the goals, the more sizable and long term the presence may have to be. Since the Bush Administration's goals for post-war Iraq appear quite ambitious - including the establishment of a democracy and the maintenance of a single, unified state - the most prudent assumption is probably that a relatively large US military presence will need to be maintained in the Iraq for an extended period after the war.  >>

It remains to be seen whether even the Republican Party has the "will" to sustain that.


Iraq War: Timelines for the Future

This article provides some useful timelines to keep in mind the next few months: The Iraq Dilemma: Do It Right or Quick? Los Angeles Times 12/27/03. (One might read a bit of humor, intentional or otherwise, into that headline.) 

Feb. 28:  Interim Governing Council (IGC) to produce new (interim) Iraqi constitution
May 31: Provincial caucuses to choose transitional legislative assembly
June 30: Transfer sovereignty to a new Iraqi government

The article covers a number of the challenges involved. But it doesn't mention three factors which are critical to the outcome. One is the official target, just recently reiterated by the Administration to Congress, of an Iraqi army of around 40,000, compared to a prewar army of around 400,000 (excluding Republican Guard). No independent Iraqi government is going to assume that an army of 40,000 is large enough for minimum national defense, with potentially hostile neighbors like Iran, Turkey and Syria. And recruiting and retaining even that army is proving a worse challenge than expected.

We know how much the Administration is concerned about international law, and the US does have an obligation as the occupying power to provide for defense of the country's borders. There are also pragmatic issues of perhaps more immediate urgency in the eyes of some that also mean that US can't leave Iraq with only an army of 40,000. Meeting the June 30 deadline does not in itself mean that large numbers of US troops can be withdrawn.

Second is a question the answer to which even Congress doesn't have: what are the actual American requirements for the new government? That would include a whole range of issues, from defense matters to human rights to contracts, international debts and reparations to Iran and Kuwait.

Third, unless the UN Security Council - or at least Iraq's major creditor countries - also recognize the June 30 regime as the sovereign government of Iraq, the United States as the occupying power is on the hook for all of Iraq's external debt. Republicans can bluster all they want. But the US cannot resolve that one unilaterally.

Christmas and December 25 (Pt. 3 of 3)

(Cont. from Part 2) McGowan briefly describes the chain of historical evidence for the setting of Christmas on December 25 to coincide with the Sol Invictus festival:

It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea. They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly.

As McGowan describes, there are various problems with this theory, not least of which is that up until at least the year 312, "the persecuted Christian minority [in the Roman Empire] was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays." His article mentions some of the evidence suggesting that December 25 was adopted for Christmas before that time.

His conclusion is while some elements of the Christian festival itself may derive from pagan practices, "the actual date might really derive more from Judaism - from Jesus' death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year - than from paganism." But he also suggests that this very "notion of cycles and the return of God's redemption" was also something that the pagans of ancient Rome would have understood.

Note on Bible Review: I would describe it as the Scientific American of Biblical scholarship. (Or at least the Popular Science!) In other words, it's a "popular" journal, not a scholarly one. But they don't publish schlock, either.


Christmas and December 25 (Pt. 2 of 3)

(Cont. from Part 1) In addition, early Christians in both the West and (apparently) the East as well believed that Jesus died on the same day of the year on which he had been conceived, which Christians also understand as a divine event (the Annunciation of Mary). McGowan points out that this use of the same date for the conception and death of Jesus is similar to ancient Jewish traditions that "creation and redemption should occur at the same time of the year."

How would this translate into a specific date for Christmas? McGowan explains:

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died - was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25 ; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.

In other words, the assumed historical date of Jesus' death (March 25) was used as a calculation point for his birth, based on a theological notion that identified the date of his death and the date of his conception. If he was conceived on March 25, December 25 becomes a good date for his birth.

McGowan points out the the most widely-known and popular theory of how December 25 was selected is based on the fact that the Roman Emperor Aurelian in 274 CE set December 25 as the date celebrating the virth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Son), around the same time as Roman and barbarian winter solstice festivals. In this view, setting the same date for Christmas is what we today might call a marketing decision: "If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated." (Let's leave aside the whole Christian controversy over the nature of Jesus' divinity, which wouldn't be settled for more than a century).

(Cont. in Part 3)


Christmas and December 25 (Pt. 1 of 3)

This article is no longer available at the original source. But a Google cache version is accessible (even though the link probably eats up about half my 2500 character limit!):

How December 25 Became Christmas by Andrew McGowan Bible Review Dec 2002

McGowan in a professor of early Christian history at the Episcopal Divinity School in Massachusetts. In this article, he takes a look at the traditional assumption about the origins of December 25 as the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Now, there's always more than one element at work in these things. AOL Journaler Marcia Ellen is running an imaginative and literary series of posts on ancient winter-solstice festivals, which is definitely worth checking out. The winter-solstice festival tradition certainly had its influences on the Christian Christmas.

McGowan looks specifically at the December 25 date and why that was selected for Christmas. He believes that it had to do with the strong association early Christian theology made between Jesus' birth and his death at the Jewish Passover time, his death taking on the meaning of a substitute sacrifice for the sins of humanity.

(Cont. in Part 2)


Another Opinion on the I-10 Shooting in Mississippi

This guy managed to come up with a more succinct summary of the I-10 shooting (see 12/26 posts) than I ever could have managed:

Royce Hignight, a retired FBI agent from Biloxi, said it is odd that someone would leave a casino as a total stranger and get shot under those circumstances.

"It's hard for me to believe it was just a random shooting, unless it was a copycat (crime)," Hignight said. "There's got to be more to this. People here just don't kill you unless they want to."

"People here just don't kill you unless they want to." I never could have come up with that wording on my own.

Source: Second Atlanta man shot on road Biloxi (MS) Sun-Herald 12/27/03

Iraq War: A Mess Is a Success?

I'm beginning to think David Brooks is seriously losing his touch since he became a New York Times columnist earlier this year. In his latest (NYT 12/27/03), he actually argues that it's a good thing that we didn't have any real plan for postwar Iraq and that we should be happy things are a mess:

[W]e [Americans] stink at social engineering. Our government couldn't even come up with a plan for postwar Iraq - thank goodness, too, because any "plan" hatched by technocrats in Washington would have been unfit for Iraqi reality. ...

[T]he Americans and Iraqis are now ... muddling through, devising shambolic, ad hoc solutions to fit the concrete realities, and ... we'll learn through bumbling experience. In the building of free societies, every day feels like a mess, but every year is a step forward.

That's just sad. And, no, I don't believe I've ever seen anyone use the word "shambolic," either. I looked it up; it's a mostly British usage meaning disorganized or confused. And he thinks this is a good thing that our Iraq occupation policy is this way.

Brooks and his former colleagues at the prowar Weekly Standard weren't exactly telling us this a year ago. If they had explained before the war that the US had no real plans for the postwar period and that the war suporters considered that a good thing, it might have made a difference.

Brooks is a pretty good bellwether for major Republican polemical themes. If he's adopting an argument that says it's a good thing that our Iraq policy's a mess, that's a sign of how panicky some leading Republicans must be about this war.

But at least they can't accuse us war critics of not talking about the good news any more. Because when we talk about what a mess things are, that is the good news by this new line of argument. Oh, that is strange.


Quick Takes on Politics

Before we get buried in the blitz of pundit chatter and political head-banging - and with the Republicans already equating patriotism with the support of their party, this next year promises to be ugly - here's a couple of notable articles from last year:

Recall May Help Bush, But State Still a Battleground by Ronald Brownstein Los Angeles Times 10/09/03. Brownstein explains why the California recall vote shows some trends that could help the Republicans in 2004, but the state is still expected to be safely Democratic. He quotes Democratic consultant Chris Lahane, "Unless George W. Bush is going to become pro-choice, pro-gun safety, pro-health care and pro-civil rights, it is going to remain a very difficult state for him to compete in."

God Help the Democrats by John Bunzel Los Angeles Times 09/14/03. This is a conservative take on the religious issues in current politics. Like a lot of the "cultural war" talk, this seems to be more a statement of what conservative Republicans find it pleasant to hear than anything more substantial. Although this will continue to be a theme in the 2004 elections, I'm skeptical that it will be as decisive as Republicans like to imagine. One of the distinctive things about the Christian Right is that, to the extent it's a coherent voting group, they tend to vote on issues rather than on religious evaluations of the candidate.

Friday, December 26, 2003

The Star of Bethlehem (Pt. 2 of 2)

(Cont. from Part 1) Eugen Drewermann, one of my favorite Christian theologians, talks about these stories in his Das Matthäus Evangelium: Bilder Der Erfüllung (vol. 1; 1992). He emphasizes the religious message: "Every truly religious experience rests on the revelation of a great vision," and every individual believer finds a way to see "a star of hope" in their lives. "We can see the truth of our lives only with the eyes of our souls, and so the message of the Magi from the rising of the sun [i.e., from the east] is first of all an appeal to our courage to put faith in the truth of our dreams and our history," he writes.

He compares the story of the Star to the holy night of al-Qadr in the Muslim tradition, in which the archangel Gabriel "came down from the seventh heaven and revealed the suras of the Qu'ran to Mohammed."

[T]hat night of power and glory that "brings peace and health ..., until the breaking of the dawn." It is necessary to recognize something as true and to believe in something that lights our way in the darkness and shows us the way; if we follow it, we'll find the "child" for ourselves, which in us comes into the world "as a virgin" (pure) at the place when the "star" comes to rest.

Drewermann goes on to talk about how the scholars in Herod's court were seeking to find something "without the vision of a 'star'" but their efforts remained nothing more than "dead, written papers." In the story of the Star of Bethlehem:

Human vision and divine promise meet here and each gives power to the other, so that one cann really believe for a moment long, that the world could find at this place the way to its unity, and could awaken to a "night of destiny" that "brings peace and health ..., until the breaking of the dawn."

The Star of Bethlehem (Pt. 1 of 2)

This time of the year always brings popular articles about Biblical topics, often rehashing the same information year after year with a tone of surprise at the newness of it all. The Star of Bethlehem is a popular topic among these. For instance, this news reporter seems to have discovered the issue for the first time:

What Was the Star of Bethlehem? Oakland Tribune 12/25/03

He came up with this expert opinion from an astronomy professor: "What the star probably was, was something of significance to the wise men." Well, duh! That's pretty obvious from the story: wise men, bright star, led them to the Baby Jesus.

This US Naval Observatory site, The Star of Bethlehem (09/23/03), gives a concise summary of some of the astronomical events that may have become associated with the Christ Child story:

The description of the 'star' in the Gospel of Matthew (the only mention of the star in the Gospels) is too ambiguous to make possible a definitive identification with known astronomical phenomena of that era. Astronomers have proposed conjunctions of some of the planets as a likely explanation of the 'star.' Possible conjunctions involve Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC; Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars in 6 BC; and Jupiter and Venus in 3 BC. Other possibilities are appearances of comets in 5 BC and 4 BC, and a nova (exploding star) in 5 BC. Alternatively, there may have been a sighting of the then unknown planet Uranus, which, though faintly visible to the naked eye, was not discovered until AD 1781. lf the appearance of the 'star' was a miracle or a myth, astronomical explanations are unnecessary and invalid.

It also has several references to scientific literature on the Star.

This literalistic approach is fascinating. But in some ways it misses the point. The Star of Bethlehem story is part of the story of the "three kings" - the Magi, the Babylonian astrologers - which is bound up with the related story of King Herod's horrific slaughter of the innocents.

(Cont. in Part 2)


The onset of the holidays seemed to have inspired a couple of my favorite bloggers to do analyses of the "neoconservatives" (aka "neocons" for short). Here are two from Billmon:

Twilight of the Neocons? 12/23/03
What is a Neocon? 12/24/03

The first of these has a particularly memorable phrase. He says of the Goldwater conservatives of 1964 that their foreign policy was "one long howl of rage."

Kevin "CalPundit" Drum also tackled the subject:

Neocon Singlemindedness 12/24/03

The Christian Science Monitor has a helpful site giving brief profiles of the leading "neoconservatives":

Empire Builders: Neoconservatives and their blueprint for US power

A recent article in the liberal American Prospect challenges the neocon view of the Cold War:

The -Ism That Failed 12/01/03 issue


Iraq War: Security Before Elections?

I've praised Steve Gilliard's Weblog numerous times, because I find it to be a valuable source of information links and analysis of the Iraq War. As far as I know, Gilliard (like most of us Americans) doesn't speak Arabic. But he's been paying close attention to the war news and analyzing events more minutely than most anything you'll get on television.

He tends to be pessimistic, and unfortunately for us all, his pessimism has been largely borne out.  The war cheerleaders keep telling us to look at the good news. But attacks like the ones on the central Green Zone in Baghdad the last couple of days are painfully hard to ignore. Gilliard writes:

It's now to the place where every word the government says about Iraq is either wrong or a lie. Guerrillas never got within RPG [rocket propelled grenade] range of MACV [in Vietnam], or of Soviet HQ in Afghanistan. Yet, we're supposed to believe that the US has a handle on security issues in Iraq? They're flying Apache missions into central Baghdad. One day, either they're going to waste a bunch of civilians or come crashing down as a Strela hits them from close in.

This is the environment they expect to have elections and a trial of Saddam in? Who are they kidding? We know Bush wants to flee the occupation, but come on, without a better security situation, you're inviting a civil war to erupt. You can't even safeguard the police, much less leading Shia clerics, former Baathists or the Green Zone and you expect to secure elections? Fact is, US troops can't even monitor a polling place in most of Iraq without catching sniper fire. Without basic security, elections are a either a pipe dream or future fraud. If you can't do something as fundamental as protect the country's main pipeline, any talk of elections is a fantasy.

I think he may be a bit off-track in one sense. It's possible to have meaningful elections even if parts of the country have serious fighting going on. But for the current occupation government (Bremer's CPA) to have its way on the full range of political, military and economic goals, a much higher level of security will be required.


Stereotyping the South

I'm usually immediately suspicious when I hear Southerners complaining about how people outside the South just don't understand them. That's mainly because I grew up in Mississippi hearing people whine endlessly about how the Yankee press was horribly misrepresenting the South in general and Mississippi in particular. The truth is that most Yankees don't know or care very much about Mississippi. And the ones that do have almost as little patience with that sort of whining as I do.

Having said all that, I was especially impressed by this column from last September by Michael Marshall, editor of the Mobile Register. He makes a good point here about how lazy journalists rely on sloppy stereotypes and conventional wisdom, sometimes to the point of downright bad reporting.

The New York Times bears false witness Mobile (AL) Register 09/01/03

Marshall focuses in particular on a New York Times report on the protests in favor of the showboating former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's Ten Commandments monument. Marshall himself has been a strong critic of Moore. But he gives some examples of how anti-Southern stereotypes and sloppy reporting distorted the story for the Times' readers. It also shows how decent editors think about communicating information.

I was particularly amused at how he said the Times reporter managed to work in people with Confederate t-shirts into the Ten Commandments protesters, thus "conjuring up a revival of gap-toothed, barefoot, unreconstructed racists."

When Marshall checked with the Register's reporter, he found that some participants in an unrelated demonstration by the far-right group the League of the South had wandered over to the Ten Commandments protest. The organizers asked them to leave, and they did. As Marshall notes of the supporters of the League, "many of [them] really are gap-toothed racists." He adds, "We Alabamians have embarrassed ourselves enough by electing Moore as our state's chief justice. The New York Times need not embellish that reality by bearing false witness."

Check out the whole piece.

More on the Mississippi I-10 Shooting

This article from the Biloxi (MS) Sun-Herald gives some additional details on the I-10 slaying that I referenced in previous posts.

The Sun-Herald also had the good sense not to mention the ridiculous "road rage" theory, since it so obviously was not that. It adds a telling detail that the first car that menaced the Ghanshyam family stopped in front of their vehicle. That makes it even more clear that it was a deliberate, coordinated setup involving two vehicles doing the attack.

The Sun-Herald also provides a number for people with information on the incident to telephone.

Miscellaneous Stories of Interest

Thurmond revelation hits home Atlanta Journal-Constitution 12/25/03. African-American writer Earl Ofari Hutchison "digs up kin" with Strom Thurmond. For you Yankees out there who don't know what "digging up kin" means, this is a great example.

New Year's Resolutions New York Times 12/26/03. Paul Krugman encourages political reporters to be less superficial in their coverage, doubtless without a lot of optimism that they will take his advice. It's more valuable as a guide to critical readers following the political campaigns in 2004.

Leaks Probe is Gathering Momentum Washington Post 12/26/03. The Valerie Plame case is still alive, as it should be. This was a serious crime committed for cheap-shot political purposes and the perps need to be identified and prosecuted. One more piece of fallout from the Iraqi-WMD fraud. By Mike Allen and Dana Milbank, two of the Post's best reporters (although it also notes that the thoroughly Administration-line Susan Schmidt contributed to the piece). They also give a picture of the monumental arrogance that Bush and his crew bring to this situation:

But sources said the CIA believes that people in the administration continue to release classified information to damage the figures at the center of the controversy, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV and his wife, Valerie Plame, who was exposed as a CIA officer by unidentified senior administration officials for a July 14 column by Robert D. Novak.

And a note for the upcoming Presidential campaign: Jules Witcover's reporting on Presidential elections has consistently been one of the best in the business.

This Wasn't Any "Road Rage" Incident (Pt. 2 of 2)

(Cont. from Part 1The Mississippi police have to realize this has all the superficial look of a racial and/or xenophobic shooting. The two-car technique seems stikingly similar to that used by Klan types in the 1960s, for instance in the notorious murder of the three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, MS, in 1964.

It seems awfully public for an organized crime hit. It could be a personal grudge, but having a second car ready with an automatic weapon makes that less likely. But if they've got politicals whacking people on public highways in broad daylight because they think they look like "A-rabs" or something, I would think that would be something the police would want to publicize.

For one reason, as a warning to the public. For another, to try to get people with some knowledge of the creeps involved to rat them out. While I wouldn't want to underestimate the problems they can cause, these white-supremacist types generally operate with something less than al-Qaeda levels of secrecy and discipline. So publicizing this and asking for the public's help might yield some promising leads.

So, unfortunately, it looks like we've had at least one death from terrorism in America over the holidays. And it doesn't look like the perps were either Iraqis or al-Qaeda.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also carried the story, but their reporter (or editor) didn't consider the "road rage" theory serious enough to mention. Their reporter did question Sgt. Gazzo about a possible ethnic-racial angle:

The family of Indian immigrants apparently was not targeted because of their ethnicity because they were traveling in a car with tinted windows, Gazzo said.

"I don't think you'd really be able to tell who was inside, so that possibility is slight," he said.

That sounds pretty thin to me. Other than limosines, I've rarely seen cars with tinting that thick. And if the perps stalked them from the casinos - a possibility that the cops discussed - then the window tint wouldn't matter. I hope they get to the bottom of this one.

This Wasn't Any "Road Rage" Incident (Pt. 1 of 2)

Via the ever-alert Atrios, I came across this story about a Christmas Day shooting in southern Mississippi. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger picked up essentially the same story with a similar headline, apparently based on the Mississippi Highway Patrol's official statement: Road rage suspected in coast killing (12/26/03).

The basic story is this. A man Patel Ghanshyam came to Biloxi, MS, with four of his family members for some gambling at the casinos that are now the Mississippi Gulf Coast's biggest tourist attraction. Early Christmas morning, they left in their car headed home on Highway I-10. The Clarion-Ledger relates the version given by Highway Patrol sergeant Joe Gazzo:

Soon after they merged onto the highway, a small, blue imported car with a loud muffler came up alongside the family, repeatedly swerving close to them, then getting in front of them and slowing down.

"Harassing them with actions of the car, you could say," Gazzo said.

Gazzo said witnesses told investigators that one of the occupants of the harassing car then got on a cell phone and apparently called another vehicle, a brown sport utility vehicle, which pulled alongside the Atlanta family and opened fire with an automatic weapon.

Gazzo said the family's vehicle was hit eight times. He said one of the shots hit Ghanshyam under the arm, killing him instantly.

This ain't no "road rage" killing. It might be some organized-crime related thing, or a personal grudge. Or some militia-nut political-terrorist killing. Living in California, the road-rage capital of the world, I'm very aware of the potential for deadly violence in that situation. But I've never, ever heard of a case of "road rage" where the violence was done by anyone other than the driver. In this case, the first hostile driver phoned a second vehicle who pulled up with an automatic weapon.

(Cont. in Part 2)

Mystery of the Orange Alert

The story of the cancellation of the Air France flights due to fears of a terrorist attack presumably involving seizure of an aircraft has been widely reported. See Los Angeles Times, El Mundo, Washington Post.

The Post article linked above gives some pretty strong hints that French officials were skeptical of the American evidence, although they acted on it out of caution. Although some individuals were detained and questioned, apparently no suspects were arrested.

Josh Marshall has some more specifics about disagreements between French and American officials on this matter, linking to this BBC report and to this report from a Welsh news site. Marshall points out that we have reason to be disturbed by the continuing problems in coordination on counter-terrorism with countries that until very recently were generally considered our closest allies. As he puts it, "few things are more important than effective liaison and coordination between ours and our allies intelligence services. And if the choppy political waters are getting in the way, on either side, that's a big problem."

And I can't help but wonder, if we have intelligence that's good enough to ferret out information this specific on a terrorist plot, shouldn't we have enough information to make some arrests? I hope that the Congressional intelligence committees perform some serious oversight on these terrorist alerts. As the massive intelligence failure (combined with deliberate deception) over the Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction" showed, American intelligence isn't as good as it needs to be. And we need good intelligence to effectively combat terrorism.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Happy Holidays

I'm going to skip the next couple of days blogging. Unless I get really inspired to post something about Christmas.

Or unless some really atrocious happens. You know, like John Ashcroft deciding to give a Christmas sermon standing nekkid in the snow in front of the White House.

It would probably sound a lot like Chuckie's Christmas message, which really isn't worth a separate Chuckie Watch because it's boilerplate stuff that you would find in tens of millions of fundamentalist tracts. It is kind of weird to see Chuckie babbling about Chrisitianity as a religion of love and charity, since he spends the rest of the year ranting like a drooling, rightwing, war-loving...

But I digress. Stay away from mad cows. Don't drink too much egg nog. Drive safely.

Merry Christmas       Feliz Navidad

Frohe Weihnachten    Happy Holidays

                     Pray for Peace

Partisan Switch-Hitters

Every election has people who switch parties, and for all kinds of reasons. Some people may register to vote and designate their political party at age 20 when they don't know much or care much about politics. Then, 20 years later, their opinions have changed but they're still registered in the same party.

Heck, for anyone who's opinions haven't changed between ages 20 and 40, there are basically only two reasons for that. They're either (a) totally apathetic or (b) brain-dead.

But then there are also the clowning versions, who seem to be especially popular with Republicans right now. You know, the ones who say, "Now, I'm a Democrat but I think the Democrats today are (fill in Republican Party talking points of the day)." Tammy Bruce is one of Fox News' regular "liberal Democrats" who seems to be a fairly extreme version of this type.

But, heck, Democrats can clown like that, too. Actually, this article by a teacher from Washington state is not nearly the clown act that Tammy Bruce or her type represent. But he's a Republican who claims to be having an opposite kind of political epiphany. What really caught my eye about this piece is that he gives a good description of why situations like the Iraq War are so disturbing to the Republican goal of comforting the comfortable:

I initially supported the war in Iraq, but now I must admit that if it were my son killed in that helicopter crash, patriotism is not the only feeling that I would be experiencing. The wars we have fought lately have not instilled in me a belief that these people are dying for their country as much as for their president's agenda -- and I wonder why I am so willing to support a war that is justifiable enough to risk the lives of other people's children, but nowhere near justifiable enough to risk the lives of my own.

You see, in addition to the 5-year-old twins, I have a 16-year-old stepson still asleep in his room. Would his death in a war like this leave me feeling patriotic or just angry? Call me unpatriotic, un-Republican or even un-American, but I can't find many things about this war that would validate in me the loss of my child.


Iraq War: Daniel Goldhagen on Trying Saddam's Collaborators

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen became a bit of an international celebrity with his 1996 book Hitler's Willing Executioners about the collaboration of ordinary German citizens in the Holocaust. The book was heavily criticized by Holocaust scholars for its analytical problems as well as problems in his usage of both primary and secondary sources. But it became a surprise bestseller on the strength of some vivid narrative (along with a lot of turgid, repetitive writing surrounding it) and a sharp tone of moral outrage and retributive justice.

Now Goldhagen is writing on the issue of Saddam's trial and related matters: Justice Beyond Hussein Los Angeles Times 12/23/03.  Goldhagen argues that not just Saddam but "torturers and murderers" should be tried as well. And the moral outrage and demand for retribution are there: "Justice, after all, mandates punishment for crime." And who would disagree with those broad statements?

The problem is, that's pretty much it. On the major practical issues, Goldhagen hardly offers even broad guidelines of what he thinks should be done. Should Saddam be tried by an Iraqi court? By an American court-martial? By a special UN tribunal? By the International Criminal Court? Goldhagen says only that those issues are "in focus and relatively well understood" (!?!) and that "discussion" on that should take place both in Iraq and in the "international arena."

He offers only the vaguest general ideas on how to approach the question of the culpability of collaborators, for instance in the Republican Guard or the Baath Party. "Let as few mass murderers as possible go free," he recommends. But he also tells us that the "decision is not mainly a legal decision, but a political one."

Those who followed the controversy over his famous book will not be surprised at the vagueness of his commentary - vague to the point of useless for even broad policy purposes. And will also not be surprised if in a couple of weeks he comes out with a statement that seems to be of a very different perspective, but with the same tone of moral outrage.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Sign of the Times?

Maybe the headline writer for this Reuters story was having a morbid streak:

Two U.S. Soldiers and Iraqi Killed, Bush Wins Boost

For those who love to decipher the arcane mysteries of public opinion polls, this article offers some useful perspective on Bush's post-Saddam-capture "bump": Public Still Worried Even With Saddam in the Slammer by Rus Teixeira 12/21/03


Alert Orange

We're on high terrorism alert, and apparently there is some good reason for it.

But President Bush also said Monday: "American citizens need to go about their lives but as they do so, they need to know that governments at all levels are working as hard as we possibly can to protect the American citizens."

If there is another major terrorist attack, the White House doesn't want to be accused of not being alert. But the Republican Party's main business is comforting the comfortable, and telling everyone they might be hit at any moment by a terror attack is uncomfortable. So we get mixed messages like this pre-Christmas series.

There's been some grumping about this alert. Eric Alterman in his (unarchived) Weblog for 12/22/03 said:

Now that we're on high alert for another Al-Qaida attack, aren't you glad the Bush administration has starved homeland security and pulled resources and agents out of Afghanistan in order to fight a needless, expensive, and counterproductive war in Iraq?

Joe Conason also displays a bit of the bah-humbug spirit, noting that we have this new alert while Bush Administration cheerleaders are telling us we're so much safer with Saddam in jail and about how Libya was cowered by our manly toughness. And he grumbles:

While we await our fate, I would like to hear the president explain how the bloody $200 billion invasion of Iraq improved our defenses against terrorism -- and also why, a week after Saddam's capture, the United States is confronting the worst threat from al-Qaida since the disaster of September 2001. Over the past several days, Washington's great minds have mocked Howard Dean for daring to say what the White House now more or less acknowledges: War in Iraq has made us no safer than we were last spring.

Iraq War: More on the Alternative Saddam Capture Stories

I mentioned in an earlier post a couple of alternative versions of the story of Saddam Hussein's capture. Via the ever-useful site Cursor, here's another story from the Scottish Sunday Herald that refers to those stories plus a third I hadn't hear before: Revealed: who really found Saddam?

The article makes the point, which I think is generally valid, that a story itself can become an important factor in events, even if its not true. Just think of the belief that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction." But that's part of why it's important to get the story right.

Josh Marshall dismisses the story. And he goes into some detail on why he does so - even though he concludes by noting that the fact that these stories don't hold up well to scrutiny means just that. It doesn't preclude new information emerging. It's useful to see how a careful researcher who's generally familiar with the subject processes this information. Referring to first the Herald Story and then the version, Marshall writes:

So, I think this all adds up to no reason to believe there's anything to do this story, at least not based on what I've seen in published accounts. What I think we've got here is a rumor which got picked up by an inexperienced reporter and then made its way on to some mainstream newswires.

There've been other rumors flying around -- like this one from Debkafile. But Debkafile is about as reliable as raw intelligence and should be treated with the same skepticism. Actually, it's not just that it should be treated like raw intelligence, it ... well, that's for another day.

To repeat what I said in the previous post on this subject: We may see more of these "true story of Saddam's capture" stories. Skepticism is in order.


California Politics: Schwarzenegger Turns Back the Clock

Gov. Schwarzenegger's journalistic fan Daniel Weintraub offers a realistic assessment of where the new governor is after his first few weeks in office.

Hollywood ending still eludes our action hero Sacramento Bee 12/21/03

The governor, for all his bravado, has succeeded so far only in turning back the clock to June. The car tax is lower, the government's deficit is ballooning and the state is on the verge of borrowing billions of dollars to balance its books. We have seen all of this before.

Reversing time, one could argue, is exactly what the voters elected Schwarzenegger to accomplish. They wanted him to undo damage done by former Gov. Gray Davis, especially in his final days in office. In that Schwarzenegger has succeeded.

But now the new governor is facing the same problem as the old governor: how to balance the budget while inflicting the least pain on others and as little political damage on himself as possible. And Schwarzenegger's first moves don't suggest he has any better idea of how to do that than did his less telegenic predecessor.

The only real difference between Schwarzenegger's budget situation and Gray Davis' is that Schwarzenegger has widened the annual budget gap by an additional $4 billion by reducing the car tax. The $15 billion bond still has to be approved by the voters in March.

When Weintraub refers to Schwarzenegger succeeding in reversing Davis' "damage," presumably he means the reduction of the car license tax (which looks to me like more damage) and the repeal of the undocumented-residents' drivers license law (which Schwarzenegger has allegedly agreed to re-enact with changes next year). Weintraub really is a fan.

And Schwarzenegger's plans to use initiatives to achieve his goals means that he will continue to have a frantic fundraising schedule. While using initiatives is superficially democratic, in practice in means that Schwarzenegger will have his hands out for more and more special interest money, to an extent that Davis - who was rightly criticized for his "pay to play" style - never did.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Iraq War: The Post-Saddam-Capture Situation (Pt. 3 of 3)

(Cont. from Part 2) The same Business Week issue (12/29/03) carries a column by Stanley Reed on Iraq that encourages a loose federal structure for post-war Iraq. Some of his reporting and analysis is not so convincing to me. But I did a real double-take at this comment, in which he describes the predominantly-Kurdish north as almost independent:

The Kurds have their own de facto border controls, laws, and an 80,000-strong army, and will be loath to permit any rolback of their autonomy.

The last I heard, the Bush Administration was planning a national army for Iraq of only 40,000 troops, compared to around 400,000 prewar in just the regular army, not counting the Republican Guards and other special troops. Given the size of the armies in surrounding countries, that always looked tiny. But if the Kurds have an effective army of 80,000, even if its split between rival political factions, how can that co-exist peacefully with an Iraqi army of only 40,000?

The short answer: a national army of 40,000 for Iraq would assume a permanent American troops presence of significant size there, with the US military deeply involved in Iraqi politics.


Iraq War: The Post-Saddam-Capture Situation (Pt. 2 of 3)

(Cont. from Part 1) That explains why, despite the brightening prospect opened up by Saddam's capture, U.S. officials are resigned to a lengthy stretch of hostilities.

It doesn't sound like we'll be revving up to liberate Syria or Iran from their ruthless dictatorships that are lusting in their hearts to get their own "weapons of mass destruction" any time soon. And what are some of those "brightening prospects"? (Emphasis added)

With CIA agents descending on Iraq in force, hit teams scouring the country for guerilla leaders, and the 4th Infantry Division spearheading large-scale ground sweeps of rebel strongholds, some order could finally be restored.

I wonder if they are officially called "hit teams." Unless their intelligence is exceptionally good, this could cause a lot of trouble in several different ways. And the 4ID's sweeps so far have probably created as much hatred and opposition than they've suppressed. If not more.

Does the following report of conditions mean that Business Week hates America? Because this isn't exactly upbeat news:

According to the Pentagon, electricity generation is running around 3,452 megawatts, still below the prewar level of 4,400 MW. Hospitals, clinics, and police stations are all starting to function around the country, but local leaders continue to complain about poor conditions. Water is pumping at 65% of prewar output. "We shouldn't get carried away with what a great victory [Saddam's capture] was," says former National Security Council official William B. Quandt. "We still need to get things working for everyday Iraqis."

Reality is crashing in on the happy talk of current official pronoucements and on the fantasy-based optimism of the prewar days.

(Cont. in Part 3)


Iraq War: The Post-Saddam-Capture Situation (Pt. 1 of 3)

The lead story in the current (12/29/03) Business Week on the Iraq War is available only to subscribers online. But it seems to be a sober, if somewhat misguided, look at the current situation in Iraq.

The capture of [Saddam Hussein] and the sudden success of big counter-insurgency sweeps in central Iraq represent major breakthroughs.

The White House, as the article notes, will try to get maximum PR mileage out of these events in both Iraq and the US. But I'm not sure "counter-insurgency" is even the right description for the recent Army actions. The 4th Infantry Division has been busting down doors and shooting up people who they typically describe as enemy hostiles, though reporters on the scene have raised serious questions about that identification in some cases. Whether that is enough to suppress the insurgency remains highly doubtful.

Giving Bush perhaps more credit for restraining White House enthusiasm than is warranted, the article notes:

Yet Bush is working hard to dampen euphoria. By resisting the temptation to rejoice, he is steeling the country for the possibility of years of turmoil in Iraq. Given the challenges ahead, the stance was prudent.

Yes, that's years of turmoil, it said. As much as Bush and his political guru Karl Rove might want to bring large numbers of US troops home by Election Day 2004, it's too early for anyone to count on that.

In the Post-Baath Party vacuum, jockeying among Shiites, Sunnis, and tribes of all stripes is intensifying. ... With a decentralized insurgency that doesn't rely on Saddam for orders, anti-U.S. attacks could actually get worse before they moderate. Confronted by the humiliation of Saddam's meek surrender, radical Islamists could redouble efforts to recruit suicide bombers.

We've come a long way very quickly from "Mission Accomplished!" on the Abraham Lincoln on May 1 to hoping for the attacks on US troops to eventually "moderate."

(Cont. in Part 2)


Afghan War: Still a War Going On

In what looks an awful lot like a clumsy attempt to use the US Army to pass out pork-barrel projects to boost the preferred candidates in an election that's to take place in a few months in a country where the government barely can be said to control the capital city.

New U.S. commander plans tactical change in Afghanistan AP 12/20/03

A wave of violence this year has belied U.S. claims to have brought security to Afghanistan, two years after an American-led assault drove the Taliban from power for harboring al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.

Attacks have forced the United Nations and other aid groups to withdraw from some regions, undermining aid delivery and confidence in the reconstruction efforts of the U.S.-backed government ahead of elections slated for June.

The United Nations has even accused the U.S. military of playing into the hands of Taliban agitators in its hunt for terror suspects, with two botched raids that killed 15 Afghan children earlier this month.

Yeah, that's Afghanistan. Sounds an awful lot like Iraq, doesn't it? War the Bush and Rummy way. Congress should have looked hard at what Bush and Rummy were doing in Afghanistan before they give them a blanket authorization to blast into Iraq. To combat the "weapons of mass destruction" that didn't exist.

Aid groups worry that their attempts to remain independent in the eyes of Afghans, including Taliban sympathizers, has been compromised by U.S. involvement in delivering assistance. ...

The top U.N. official in Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, warned last week that the world body may have to abandon its two-year effort to help reconstruct the war-battered country unless security improves.

But none of this worries Lt. Gen. David Barno, the new US commander in Afghanistan. The "terrorist organizations" are on their last legs, he assures us.

Wait, didn't we win this war two years ago? Wasn't Bush presenting the new Afghan leader and celebrating that victory in his 2002 State of the Union address?

Quick Takes

* The terror alert has been raised back up to orange. Does anyone know what that means? Are we actually supposed to do anything different? I guess we're supposed to get to airports earlier but is that because of the alert or the Christmas rush? Are we just supposed to spend the Christmas holidays being thankful that Sheriff Bush, Tom Ridge, John Ashcroft and the PATRIOT Act are protecting us? Should we take this as an excuse not to go to work the next three days?

* While we ponder the meaning of the latest color-coded mystery alert, Virginia Republican Congressman Frank Wolf is saying that coordination with the European democracies on anti-terrorist efforts has been rotten. And he seems to think it's not mainly the fault of the Europeans. One European intelligence official commented, "If you call sharing a one-way street, then we share information. They [the Americans] want what we have immediately, and demand it. But if we ask for something, it can take months before we even get an initial reply."

* Military affairs analyst William Arkin explains why giving up on the WMD snipe hunt (mostly) allowed the US to concentrate more of the available intelligence resources in Iraq on hunting down Saddam Hussein. Plus, Arkin says, "it is highly unlikely that, even if Hussein chooses to talk freely, he would be able to tell CIA interrogators anything useful, because it now seems likely that the Iraqi leader was himself deceived about the status of Iraq's weapons."


Libya's WMD Inspections

Remember back earlier this year when we thought Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction"?

War supporters were all in a tizzy ridiculing the idea that the UN inspectors could give us any reliable assurance on the WMDs. Remember how they were all making fun of the idea of the inspectors driving around in the desert in a country the size of California?

Just for grins, I looked up the areas of Iraq, California and Libya in the Encyclopedia Britannica Online (okay, I could have used something cooler like the CIA area reports but, hey, I'm feeling lazy!) and here's what they had:

Iraq: 167,975 sq. mi.
California: 158,706 sq. mi.
Libya: 678,400 sq. mi.

Now by my calculation, that makes Libya more than four times as large as Iraq. But the Bush Administration seems to think that inspections will work fine there, in a country four times as large as Iraq and that admits to having WMD programs.

So, inspections work now. Maybe Bush and Rummy have come up with some revolutionary new technique for inspections that means we no longer have to take over a country completely and occupy it for years and fight a long, bloody guerrilla war if the country is denying that it has WMD programs and is allowing international inspectors unrestricted access, which was the case with Iraq when we invaded.

I'm not encouraging war with Libya. I'm very glad we've gotten what seems to be a resonable agreement with them. But it just emphasizes what a bunch of hokum the whole WMD scare over Iraq really was. A thoroughly dishonest undertaking to scare the American and British publics to supporting a war that was not necessary.

Are Christians in America Persecuted?

I mentioned a while back that I had been reading some of the Mississippi Baptist Record, the official paper of the state's Southern Baptist Convention. The 8/14/03 issue had an article with a common Christian Right argument by editor William Perkins, Jr., that caught my attention.

In that issue, Perkins polemicizes against public schools as places where students are denied "the opportunity to study the Bible but requires them to read Karl Marx."

A lot of Christian Right rhetoric relies on fuzzy thinking. In this case, I will note that in growing up going to public high school in Mississippi, the only time I recall being required to read Karl Marx was during a required six-week segment on the evils of Communism. And while Bible classes are not taught in public schools, courts have routinely upheld the right of students to have religious clubs and Bible study groups on school property.

It's hard to tell whether Perkins is more concerned to promote religion in the public schools or to scare Mississippi Baptists into sending their kids to church schools.

He writes that, in America, "We've almost returned to the point where Christians have to meet in in catacombs and exchange secret symbols for safety."

This is so over the top that the only comment it deserves is that it's callous and obnoxious toward the Christians in places like China or Saudi Arabia where Christians really are persecuted and discriminated against because of their Christian faith.

Perkins goes on to echo the notorious comment of Jerry Falwell after the 9/11 attacks by referencing Mark 9:42 ("Jesus' admonition to anyone who leads a child astray") and reading that Scripture to mean: "For a host of reasons, its' not going to be pretty when God rains down his judgment on America." Does the editor of the Mississippi Baptist Record hate America?

It occurs to me that if one can believe that Christians in America are being persecuted like in ancient Rome, then it becomes much easier to believe a Christian Right partisan like George W. Bush when he claims that Iraq is brimming with "weapons of mass destruction." Loss of reality-checking abilities can have many consequences.

Honoring Soldiers

I thought again of Wesley Clark's comment about the sentimentalization of soldiers when I saw Time's Person of the Year, "The American Soldier." Not an individual soldier, mind you, but a collective entity, The American Soldier.

I haven't yet read the Time story. But it struck me that this is a classic illustration of how people can exercise "a sentimentality unsullied by first-hand knowledge of soldiering," as Clark put it. We can all buy one of these and leave it lying visibly on the coffee table during the holidays to show how we "honor the troops."

I'm not saying it's a bad idea. I may do it myself. But the point is that vague sentimental tributes to The American Soldier are no substitute for voters taking their responsibility as citizens seriously when it comes to thinking about war.

Because we're not sending "The American Soldier" to war. We're sending individual men and women there. Individuals like the ones remembered in this feature in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Profiles of Americans Who Have Died.

Men like 27-year-old Frederick Miller, Jr. (no relation) of Hagerstown, Indiana, who re-enlisted in the Army after the 9/11 attacks, killed Sept. 20 in Ramadi, Iraq, leaving behind his wife Jamie, two daughters and a son that he will never see on the way. Women like 43-year-old Sharon Swartworth, a 26-year Army veteran killed Nov. 7 in a helicopter crash who leaves behind a husband and an eight-year-old son. Men like 37-year-old Kelly Bolor, a twin from Lahaina, Hawaii, killed Nov. 15, leaving his wife who was also named Kelly and a 3-year-old son.

No, we should never be careless of the lives of the Frederick Millers and the Sharon Swartworths and the Kelly Bolors. Because they are the ones fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, not some sentimental abstraction called The American Soldier.

Iraq War: Alternative Versions of Saddam's Capture

This story may be just a piece of fluff floated by some faction or the other trying to promote their preferred version or to cast doubt on someone else's. But the British tabloid the Sunday Express is reporting on claims that Saddam Hussein was actually captured by a Kurdish group that then tipped off the Americans to his whereabouts.

Kurds claim Saddam capture Courier-Mail (Australia) 12/22/03

The original story is apparently not available online, at least not that I've found.

I don't know how solid the story is. But I've always thought it was somewhat improbable that Saddam would be caught with no bodyguards of any kind. By no means impossible, but odd.

Since I'm on the subject, to my surprise several antiwar Weblogs have linked to this story at, a site which apparently gets information from Israeli intelligence sources and which promotes a rightwing-Likud-Party spin on events. It also claims that Saddam was being held captive, not hiding out.

I've seen some information posted at Debka which later turned out to be correct. But I've also seen others that didn't pan out at all. So I do not consider it to be reliable as a news site, only an indicator of what some of the hard-right of the Israeli Likud Party may be thinking about events. Notice that their version of events is quite different from the Sunday Express' version, and a factional political spin of some sort is pretty evident.

We may see more of these "true story of Saddam's capture" stories. Skepticism is in order.