Friday, June 29, 2007

The Latest New Version of Hitler/Munich/Whatever

Those people beating the drums for military action need to tell us if the model for US policy with Iran should be Cuba or Libya. We have and have had strikingly different policies toward two similarly-odious regimes, but in one case, we've had essentially no effect for decades and in the other, we held our nose and actually made progress. The difference is the domestic politics; there isn't much of a swing Libyan-American voting block in a key state with a lot of electoral votes. It was James Taranto who gets credit for saying that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as Farsi.

I bring this up, for those of you who know my past columns on this topic, in a week when 164 GOP members of Congress voted against the foreign operations appropriations bill, the bill that provides foreign aid to Israel, because the bill also overturns the Bush administration's "Mexico City" policy against supporting international family planning--and AIPAC has said absolutely nothing. Apparently, AIPAC is all about support of Israel, unless condoms are involved. Then, not so much.

East Valley Tribune, June 24, 2007

This week's problem doesn't affect Republicans, who believe that if another country doesn't do what we want, then attack 'em. Well, we first ask politely (that's "diplomacy"), but if they don't obey, it's bombs away.

For people who confuse the real world with the TV show 24 (like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia), the military option is never "off the table." "Pounding the [bleep] out of whatever country you last mentioned" doesn't always work, but it's attractive to people who think the only problem with torture is that the U.S. doesn't do enough of it. Short and -- if you personally don't have to suffer the consequences -- sweet.

Democratic candidates face a more complex calculation. The majority of Americans, and vast majority of Democratic primary voters, recognize that torture and preemptive war haven't worked. But Democrats have to tread carefully in noting the emperor's taste in clothes.

It's a pincers movement, because in addition to GOP bluster, there also are those Democrats who supported the Iraq war. They keep demanding that Democratic presidential candidates not let disgust with the Bush administration turn progressives away from new foreign adventures.

You expect the GOP soundbites, but the "liberal hawk" argument is much more frustrating. It's a neat rhetorical trick, an attempt by people who were so wrong on Iraq to shift the burden to those who got Iraq right. It also distracts the reader from the fact that the liberal hawks really don't know what's right; they don't want to actually endorse bombing Iran, but they simply can't bear saying that we shouldn't bomb Iran.

In politics today, you can be an out-and-out warmonger (Quick! Name one country John McCain won't attack!), but people who weigh evidence and conclude that military action would do more harm than good in Iran are "extremists." Worse, if you oppose military action, you're "blinded by Bush hatred" but the liberal hawks can ignore that for the next 19 months, any attack on Iran will be managed by those wonderful people doing oh-so-well with our existing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nice trick, that. Conclude war not justified? Blinded by Bush hatred. Endorse war? Get to pretend that the current administration is suddenly competent to wage three separate Asian land wars. Who's blind here?

Who doesn't want to be "robust" and "forceful," much less "manly?" And some argue we can't rule out force for effective diplomacy. We'll need to bluff the military option in our negotiations.

But there are two problems with the "I don't really want war but won't rule it out" approach. The first is that it's an argument better suited for U.S. domestic politics than for making progress in reining in Iran. We like threatening other countries. Democratic politicians can't use cost-benefit analysis on war; people would think (because the pundits would tell them) that even telling the truth is no justification for seeming "soft" or "weak."

Moreover, people who have studied the military options and Iranian society, like Ray Takeyh and Vali Nasr (Council on Foreign Relations), Joseph Cirincione (formerly with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), Kenneth Pollack (Brookings Institution), Flynt Leverett, and author James Fallows, all conclude that attacking Iran won't work militarily, and would rally Iranians around their unpopular regime.

The second problem is that people thinking about these issues who aren't running for office, and who aren't U.S. diplomats who may need the occasional bluff, shouldn't be narrowing the field of debate. When the time comes to authorize military action, it's unlikely that cooler heads suddenly prevail after months of insisting that we "may" need to attack at some point. Even a president with a 29 percent approval rating gets to go on TV and say we've reached that point.

Talk about "keeping military action on the table" makes sense in theory, but so long as Vice President Cheney is around, it makes as much sense as lecturing teenage male Maxim readers that they shouldn't overdo worthless politeness and formality. Sure, that could be correct, but in practice? That's most definitely not the problem.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Quick! Less Substance, Please!

My suggested headline for this week was "GOP Searches For Anybody Who Can Say This Stuff With A Straight Face" but the editor went less inflammatory and wound up with dull. I'd always thought the Giraudoux quote was from Sol Hurok, but it doesn't appear so.

East Valley Tribune, June 17, 2007

These must be frustrating days for the McCain for President campaign. Your guy’s been a stalwart anti-choice vote his entire career in politics, down the line right to life. Somehow, you’re trailing in the polls a guy who was absolutely outraged in his 2002 campaign for governor of Massachusetts (it’s great video, you should watch it) that anybody could possibly have the temerity to doubt his stalwart pro-choice credentials.

But even if you find Mitt Romney frustrating -- and, for the record, I don’t have a problem with having a president who’s Mormon; my problem is having a president who’s a cyborg -- what’s really got to frost McCain is the latest GOP-flavor-of-the-month, Fred Thompson.

Yes, the party that always attacks "Hollywood values" invariably goes all weak-kneed for actors. Never mind issues or philosophy; somehow, the party of Abraham Lincoln became the party of Stella Adler. Maybe the Democrats can take advantage by nominating Sam Waterston; that’ll show ‘em.

How do Republicans always pretend to be supporters of the wisdom of the public, except for our apparently abhorrent taste in popular culture -- and, these days, our disgust with the Iraq war? The common people are always right, except when GOP elites prefer a different answer. Why else is the immigration bill coming back?

I just don’t get the Thompson boomlet. He was known as a diffident, if not downright lazy, senator during the whole eight years he served. His one big moment, his much ballyhooed hearings about alleged Chinese political contributions in the 1996 elections, fizzled when he closed down the investigation -- reportedly after Democrats listed witnesses who would testify about similarly questionable fundraising by Republicans on the committee.

As an actor, he’s not a leading man, but rather an ensemble player, unlike Ronald Reagan, who actually had starred in a couple pictures. And for 18 years before his election, and since leaving the Senate, Thompson has spent time between his acting gigs as a very well compensated DC lobbyist.

Thompson’s also a big faker with a reputation for being "authentic" with pundits who find it easier to talk about their own feelings than to do any actual reporting or policy analysis. His 1994 Senate campaign rented a red pickup truck Thompson drove to campaign events -- until he drove out of sight, when he’d switch to a more comfortable luxury sedan. Yeah, Thompson’s authentic all right, if you can rent authenticity for only while people are watching.

It was French novelist Jean Giraudoux who wrote, "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made."

Thompson, as minority counsel to the Senate Watergate committee in 1974, did come up with Sen. Howard Baker’s memorable line, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" Thompson’s clearly a smart guy who knows a lot, but he’s going to spend the next year pretending he isn’t and instead mouthing content-free soundbites, displaying his faux folksiness.

Here’s a guy whose second wife is 25 years younger than he is; they have 2 kids under age 6. Instead of running for president, he should be trying to make sure he stays healthy until his second family graduates high school. Oh, I forgot; you only get to criticize women politicians (or Game and Fish Commission members) for neglecting their families. The way this two-parent political family thing works, if the father signs checks, we’re fine.

But however frustrating, McCain has nobody but himself to blame for his lack of traction. He’s all-in committed to two positions shared by about a third of the voters -- which usually is enough to win GOP primaries. Unfortunately, while a third of voters support the immigration bill and a third still support the Iraq war, the intersection between those two non-null sets basically consists of President Bush, the Arizona Republic editorial board, and John McCain. Not the crowd you want to hang with for 2008.

Monday, June 11, 2007

In State Budget News, There's No State Budget News

Here's this week's column. I wondered if Linda Turley-Hansen might have a response to last week's column, but instead, hers was a positive review of the vegan lifestyle. Yes, Arizona, home to vegan warmongers. And in editing news, apparently "Sheik" is a pejorative term, because a couple of them got deleted by the editor. While we're not anti-Arab at the Tribune, we're, well, um, uncomfortable.

For those of you home early enough and curious enough, KAET decided to give Andy a break and have me be the Democratic talking head on tonight's Horizon program, which airs on Channel 8 at 7 pm MST.

Hey, House Republicans: When you've even exhausted state Sen. Bob Burns's appetite for partisan shenanigans, shouldn't that tell you something?

East Valley Tribune, June 10, 2007

We Arizonans shouldn’t get too uppity about the tribal nature of Iraqi politics, because down at the state legislature, they’re pretty tribal themselves. You probably know that they’re still in session because both houses still haven’t agreed with the governor on a budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. What you probably don’t know is that it’s not a partisan dispute anymore. Instead, it’s tribal.

It’s no longer Republicans versus Democrats on the budget. Instead, five separate tribes and sheiks are involved, with four having reached a deal. Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats, House Democrats, and the governor all have agreed on a budget package. The only holdout is the House Republicans, led by "sheik" Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix. His and his tribe’s intransigence would do credit to members of the Iraqi National Assembly, and what they’re arguing about would make just as much sense to most Arizonans.

This isn’t to say that House GOP budget negotiators haven’t made at least one significant concession over the past week. State government is way behind in its utility bills. The budget adopted last year underestimated how much electricity, water, and sewer rates would increase, and all of the money appropriated for utilities for the year has been spent. While state buildings are still using electricity and water, the Department of Administration can’t cut checks to pay the bills, because there’s no more budget authority left.

It’s not an unprecedented problem; it’s hard to get all of the estimates right in putting together a budget for the entire state government, and the usual solution is to put a catch-up appropriation for the current year’s bills in the next year’s budget. But with next year’s budget still undone, the state can’t, by law, pay these past-due utility bills.

Both APS and the city of Phoenix have sent the state past-due and turnoff notices because of the delinquent bills. The amount needed to pay bills through June 30 -- both the current unpaid plus estimated charges for the rest of June -- is $1.7 million. That amount is tucked into the bipartisan Senate budget to which Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats, House Democrats, and the governor have agreed.

But Weiers and his tribe had problems with the state actually paying for the water and power it used, and their budget proposal only included $1 million for the current-year utility bill shortfall. Now that’s what you call ideological zeal, being willing to have the lights and water shut off in order to feed your base red-meat tax giveaways and corporate pork. It’s hard to criticize the Iraqi National Assembly for taking the summer off when our own House Republicans don’t think it’s worthwhile to keep the lights (and air conditioning) on.

But that’s been the level of budget debate for the past two weeks: Should the state pay all of its overdue utility bills, or only about half? Luckily for those of you who expect air conditioning when you need to visit a Motor Vehicle office, the House GOP finally managed to see the light, as it were, and announced to the other budget principals, with great fanfare, that the House GOP is willing to put all $1.7 million in past-due utility bills into their budget as well.

There aren’t any windows in the Speaker’s office, so this shouldn’t have been a tough call. But maybe it was his chance to pretend he holds office during the Dark Ages or something.

House GOP Majority Leader Tom Boone, R-Peoria, triumphantly announced last Monday that the House would vote on a revised budget on Thursday, which came and went with no budget and no vote. Word is that Weiers has until this Wednesday to get his act together, or else the Senate will pass its budget and adjourn, leaving the House holding the bag, which could get rather toasty -- unless they figure out another way to pay the electric bill.

Monday, June 04, 2007

What Did You Do In The War, Mommy?

If you want to read what I was responding to, here it is (I'm reprinting it in full to avoid the usual 2-week expiration date on Tribune links, and will happily delete whatever's necessary if I am not within the proper boundaries of fair use):

We must muster the backbone to ensure victory, which is vital to our future

By Linda Turley-Hansen, East Valley Tribune, May 27, 2007

This weekend we honor those who didn’t run away. Across this country and on foreign shores are the remains of beloved Americans who pay, long after their deaths, the mortgage on our freedom. There are no expiration dates on their sacrifices; they are perpetual gifts. We must remember.

I’m a regular citizen, a desert dweller without political credentials, but still I get one vote. We’ve watched for months and years as sidewalk generals debate the Iraq war like drunken Super Bowl fans, while American enemies and agenda-driven media recycle the prattle into destructive influence. It’s time to be counted.

I’ve made my decision. I will stand with those who tell us that we cannot back away. No matter how flawed the decision to go to war, or how disappointing the Bush administration, we cannot flee. To retreat will unleash incomprehensible consequences.

A few have tried to explain: Author and Cambridge medical researcher Mac Johnson ( lays out one of the best overviews using Arab mentality: "Shame is feared more than death. Honor is loved more than life. Our enemies would be energized -- sending shockwaves of confident jihadis throughout the world." They will "flock overnight to those that offer such honor."

He adds the psychology of war: "Defeat encourages attack. Withdrawal encourages chase -- and then our troops will be sent back out again, all over the world, without their aura of competence and power to help protect them."

He’s right, you know, but the few brave voices in Washington trying to warn us are drowned by those prepared to sacrifice a nation for the next election. I often turn to Will and Ariel Durant, who wrote "The Story of Civilization." As a wise after-thought, the two summarized 10 volumes to create "The Lessons of History." Fools ignore their insight: "The immense past was only the weary rehearsal of the mistakes that the future is destined to make on a larger stage and scale." And, then: "A world order will come not by a gentleman’s agreement, but through so decisive a victory by one of the great powers that it will be able to dictate and enforce international law."

When did we turn stupid? Was it when our thriving economy served up a comfy life? Was it when we deferred to those who would undermine God? Was it when we appeased the multi-cultural agenda, allowing factual history to be marginalized, or when we allowed our borders to be invaded?

Of course there are those who want America eviscerated. They don’t see the blessing of a nation built on human rights, standing strong in military might and influence. Actually, they are embarrassed by American strength. They reason through ignorance, refusing to learn from the history so well laid out by the Durants.

In The Wall Street Journal last week, Princeton professor emeritus Bernard Lewis reminisced: "Islamists always believed the U.S. was weak." Osama bin Laden and his motley crew watched in the 1990s as America flicked off one attack after the other as if they were nothing more than an irritating flea on the fat backside of a water buffalo.

Is that really who we are? The Durants nailed it in 1968 -- decades before errorists gained footing: "Caught in the relaxing intervals between one moral code and the next, an unmoored generation surrenders itself to luxury, corruption, and a restless disorder of family and morals." Few souls feel any longer that "it is beautiful and honorable to die for one’s country."

And, then the prediction: "The end of the process -- a decisive defeat in war -- may bring a final blow or barbarian invasion from without, combined with barbarism welling up from within, to bring the civilization to a close."

We will pay dearly if we retreat from Iraq. Left to sort it out would be what most assuredly is the most corrupt elected leadership in history. No wonder we can’t sleep at night.

Where to begin? I start with simple steps: What is this victory she desires, what will it look like? Never mind how we get there; if you don't know where you're going, I suppose any road is just as good as another. And is she really so frightened that she thinks a bunch of insurgents in Iraq can force the US to surrender? To whom?

But what really frosts me is that she calls skeptics of the Bush administration and its competence "stupid" and "ignorant," and claims that we desire to see America "evicerated," but somehow I'm the one being negative? Sheesh.

East Valley Tribune, June 3, 2007

Last Sunday, Linda Turley-Hansen wrote that we must fight and win in Iraq, that "retreat will unleash incomprehensible consequences."

Because war is basically psychological, and the Arab mindset, which they all share, fears shame more than death, loves honor more than life. Defeat encourages attack, and the enemy then will strike everywhere. Leaving Iraq will "sacrifice [our] nation."

Bunk. Nonsense. Turley-Hansen claims she’s making a stand, but her support of the war effort is limited solely to attacking those who presciently warned that the decision to go to war was flawed and that the Bush administration never fails to perform below expectations.

Will she sell her cars, to avoid purchasing gasoline and thereby enriching those corrupt Arab states? Will she pay anything for the war effort, by donating more to Veterans Affairs or the USO? Or to Halliburton? Will she go to Iraq, to work with Iraqi reporters and TV crews, giving them the benefit of her experience as a television personality in a desert climate?

I don’t think so. For people who claim that we’re in an existential battle for survival, with Western civilization itself hanging in the balance, and in which any little thing -- wearing a headscarf in Syria, an article by some crackpot in Colorado -- could mean America’s downfall, there’s surprisingly little that they’ll actually do for this war. No driving less, no Victory Gardens, no savings bonds. Pay higher taxes? Dream on. Enlist? Not in this lifetime.

Then there’s Turley-Hansen’s prescription for victory, which I apparently missed. But regardless, what exactly does "winning" in Iraq mean? A multi-ethnic democracy? A stable dictatorship? A partitioned country with separate Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurds enclaves? How do you fight to victory, if nobody knows what victory is?

In her loud enlistment in this war "effort" Turley-Hansen means to do one thing, and one thing only: Silence those who disagree with her, and blame them for the failure of her policies.

This isn’t history, or strategy. It’s bad science fiction, that if you think hard enough, good results must follow. Bloggers call this obsession with "willpower" the "Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics."

In the comic, Green Lantern’s ring was limited only by the wearer’s will. (It also could create only green stuff, but he would work around that.) The ring could do anything -- if Green Lantern only had enough willpower. And Turley-Hansen’s lesson for us is that Arabs understand only willpower, and if we don’t have enough, then the ring (or our military) won’t prevail and we won't survive.

Maybe you didn’t read Green Lantern comics, but you’ve heard of Oprah. She devoted two shows to a self-help book called The Secret, which claims that our thoughts can control the world, that visualizing best-case scenarios makes them happen.

That’s the Bush administration’s strategy, which Turley-Hansen just endorsed. Think positive thoughts! We’ll be greeted as liberators, and the reconstruction will pay for itself with oil revenues! If bad things happen, it’s because we used "the Law of Attraction" to "manifest" bad results! Everything depends on what you think, deep down -- and just imagining bad outcomes only ensures their occurrence.

Oprah even backed away from her endorsement of The Secret when a viewer wrote to say that she was stopping her breast-cancer treatments to cure herself with her mind instead. And Turley-Hansen’s demand that we fight! And win! And decide later what winning means! makes just as much sense as relying on willpower and foregoing medicine in fighting cancer.

If it’s really true that the terrorists are emboldened by dissent, wouldn’t that be true of any criticism of President Bush and his policies? How closely do those terrorists read the newspaper, anyway? By attacking the immigration bill, aren’t GOP critics also showing Arabs that we’re divided, weak, and lacking in the ol’ willpower department?

If criticism is disloyalty, tell immigration bill opponents J.D. Hayworth and Randy Pullen to shut up first. Then maybe I’ll listen.