Monday, October 26, 2009

Military Dysfunction

No Sift next week. Back November 9.

Cultural insensitivity is militarily dysfunctional.

-- the Defense Science Board
Understanding Human Dynamics, March 2009.

In this week's Sift:
  • Afghanistan: No Good Choices. If we stay, things probably keep getting slowly worse. Leaving might speed that process up. The NYT's David Rohde and New Yorker's Jane Mayer provide a lot of insight, but no solutions.
  • Like a Fox. Mainstream pundits all seem to think that Obama's attack on Fox News is a mistake; it will just make Fox stronger and increase the power of people like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity to define the conservative movement. But what if that was the point? (And besides, it gives us all a chance to review Fox's most outrageous journalistic abuses.)
  • What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Liberals? The Catholic League's Bill Donohue knows, and tells the world in his new book.
  • Short Notes. Two new videos nail congressional Republicans. What ever happened to W? Rolling Stone exposes widespread nakedness on Wall Street. Senator Vitter avoids offending his racist supporters. Rape has become a pre-existing condition. Global warming deniers are convincing people. And more.

Afghanistan: No Good Choices
As a child I had my own recurring balloon-boy nightmare: I held balloons that were lifting me upward. If I let go, maybe the fall would kill me. If I held on, I would go higher.

That seems to be the choice President Obama is facing in Afghanistan. Everything we've done after our initial success (in chasing the Taliban out of the major cities and establishing the Karzai government) has been counter-productive. We've fallen into the trap David Kilcullen outlined in The Accidental Guerrilla: Afghans are recruited into the insurgency for purely local reasons -- to defend their homes and local communities from us -- and then are radicalized into seeing their local struggle as part of the global jihad.

So do we get in deeper and possibly make the Taliban even stronger and more radical in the process? Or do we get out and risk that Afghanistan returns to its pre-9/11 state?

In general, I'm not afraid to make a cut-and-run argument. In 2005 I wrote this about Iraq:
We're not fixing anything by staying. Whether we leave in a week or a year or in twenty years, Iraq will be a broken country. The only difference is this: Will 1,800 soldiers have died in vain, or thousands more?
Well, thousands more of our soldiers -- 4351 total at last count -- have died there. I have become a bit more optimistic that there might eventually be a stable Iraqi government, though I'm don't know how much that better than Saddam that future stable government will be. I remain pessimistic about democracy in Iraq, for the two reasons I outlined in my Pirate Treasure essay in 2008:
  • Lasting democracy requires not just elections, but a broad consensus about all the issues worth killing and dying for. If an issue is too important to decide by voting, the losers of an election will start a civil war.
  • Countries whose wealth is overwhelmingly oil-in-the-ground are poor candidates for democracy, because oil is like pirate treasure: It has no obvious owner; if you can steal it, it will belong to you just as legitimately or illegitimately as it belongs to whoever claims it now. In an oil-rich country, ownership of the oil will always be worth killing for.
The exception-that-proves-the-rule here is Norway. It was already a democracy with strong ethnic homogeneity and a broad consensus on many issues when the North Sea oil was discovered. It already had a modern economy with many opportunities unrelated to oil. Iraq is not Norway.

Afghanistan has the advantage, democracy-wise, of having zero natural resources. But there's not a lot of national consensus, either. It's a country of ethnic and tribal loyalties. If somebody starts killing Tajiks, the Pashtuns and Uzbeks aren't going to lose any sleep over it, or vice versa. If the U.S. were like Afghanistan, people in 49 states would have responded to the Balloon Boy incident like this: "Ah, those Coloradans. They live like animals anyway. Who cares what they do to their children?"

The most I could imagine is some kind of democratic Pashtunistan that eventually united a big chunk of Afghanistan with the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan. But nobody is proposing that or working toward it.

If we're just talking security rather than democracy, maybe some Saddam-like strongman in Kabul could control the Afghan countryside well enough to prevent them from plotting any more 9-11s out there. And maybe the Islamabad government in Pakistan could eventually make similar guarantees about its tribal areas.

Maybe. That would be years down the road, after God knows how many lives and how much money gets spent. It's not a scenario I look forward to.

But what's the alternative? When the Bush administration was telling us that we couldn't pull out of Iraq, they claimed Al Qaeda would take over the country and push the jihad into all the neighboring countries, not to mention attack us here in America. That was always a bogus argument for a lot of reasons. But a similar argument about Afghanistan is not so crazy. The most likely candidate to control the country after we leave is the Taliban, which is not identical with Al Qaeda, but not so different either. And what then happens to Pakistan, which is fighting its own war against the Taliban?

Lots of good journalism is focused on Afghanistan these days. Check out the five-part series by New York Times reporter David Rohde, who recently escaped from seven months in Taliban captivity. The Times/Rohde home page also has a good video about his series, including an animation of his escape.

Rohde's articles underline the dilemma of our mission in Afghanistan. One the one hand, Rohde makes it obvious just how counter-productive American intervention has been so far. Prior to his capture:
I spent two weeks in Helmand Province, in southern Afghanistan, and was struck by the rising public support for the Taliban. Seven years of halting economic development, a foreign troop presence and military mistakes that killed civilians had bred a deep resentment of American and NATO forces.
After capture, he sees how our harshness justifies theirs:
When I told them I was an innocent civilian who should be released, they responded that the United States had held and tortured Muslims in secret detention centers for years. Commanders said they themselves had been imprisoned, their families ignorant of their fate. Why, they asked, should they treat me differently?
He also sees how the Taliban is radicalizing as the war goes on:
After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of “Al Qaeda lite,” a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan. Living side by side with the Haqqanis’ followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.
So do you let these worse-than-before Taliban take the country back? Or do you risk making them even worse than this?

The other can't-miss article this week was Jane Mayer's New Yorker article on the Predator drones. Mayer was also interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR and by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. (Mayer appears at the 3 minute mark).

The debate over the drone attacks against the Taliban is a microcosm of a larger debate between the original Bush kill-the-bad-guys strategy and the Petraeus/Kilcullen protect-the-populace strategy. The question is whether the civilian casualties from drone strikes help the Taliban more than their insurgent-losses hurt.

Pascal Zachary of In These Times makes the get-out-now case.

Like a Fox
Opinion inside the Media Village is just about unanimous: The Obama administration is making a mistake by pointing out that Fox News is not really an objective news organization. WaPo's Ruth Marcus puts the case like this:
The Obama administration’s war on Fox News is dumb on multiple levels. It makes the White House look weak, unable to take Harry Truman’s advice and just deal with the heat. It makes the White House look small, dragged down to the level of Glenn Beck. It makes the White House look childish and petty at best, and it has a distinct Nixonian -- Agnewesque? -- aroma at worst.
I'm going to make a wild guess that the Obama people know all that, and knew it before they raised this topic. But they also know that one of the President's most important unstated powers is the power to define the opposition. So I think this is just like their earlier feud with Rush Limbaugh. Yes, it will build Fox up, but the people who will look small in comparison are the elected Republican leadership.

These days folks like Eric Cantor, John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell are Lilliputians next to Rush, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck. And that's deadly for the Republican Party. The elected Republican leadership desperately needs to get control of the party's message, and to pitch something that won't alienate 3/4ths of the country.

But Rush, Sean, and Glenn operate by a different calculus. If they can get the most right-wing 10% of the country to tune in every day, they'll be happy. And so will President Obama.

Matt Yglesias puts it this way:
Obama-skeptics worry that Obama is failing—that his efforts to create jobs aren’t working, that his reforms of the health care system won’t improve access to quality care, etc.—whereas the conservative Republicans worry that he’ll succeed. They believe, à la Beck, that the Obama administration is pursuing a secret agenda aimed at the deliberate destruction of the United States. Focusing on this rather outlandish claim makes it difficult to get in touch with the more banal worries of the marginal voter.

The administration is also providing the rest of us an excuse to point out just how biased Fox's alleged news coverage (not its opinion shows, its news coverage) is. Huffington Post, for one, compiled The Ten Most Egregious Fox News Distortions.

Jon Stewart contrasts Fox's wall-to-wall coverage of the teabagger march on Washington with the less-than-four-minutes-total it spent on the comparably sized gay rights march -- using footage borrowed from ABC, no less:
You didn't even send your own camera crew? You have a Washington Bureau. Tell them to go to the window and point the camera down. Gay people aren't vampires. They show up on camera.

Orcinus provides a list of misinformation Glenn Beck ought to correct. Salon examines how quickly elected Republicans start repeating Beck's points.

Lest you think that only liberals notice Fox's bad journalism, watch this piece by Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute. He notes many outright falsehoods in Fox's coverage of Congress amending and reauthorizing the Patriot Act. And then he "defends" Fox like this:
Folks on the Left would say that this is all evidence that Fox News is lying to viewers. But I don't think that's true. There are so many weird little mistakes in this report, so many strange random inaccuracies, that I think it just shows they don't know what they're talking about.

This clip from Media Matters shows the artificiality of the distinction between Fox's news and opinion shows. In the first segment, Glenn Beck (opinion) edits a video of White House advisor Anita Dunn to make her statement seem outrageous. In the second, Brit Hume and Bret Baier (supposedly serious journalists) discuss the "news" story of the controversy created by Beck's show -- and play the same edited video.

So Fox's opinion-makers create "news" which Fox's news people then "cover". This is a regular pattern on Fox. The whole teabagger march, for example, started out as Beck's 9/12 Project. Stuff like that never happens on the legitimate news networks.

Finally, watch Rachel Maddow go meta: Fox News has distorted the Obama administration's dispute with Fox News, and Fox commentators like Karl Rove (!) seem to have completely forgotten how the Bush administration handled the media.

It's a mistake to compare Fox to MSNBC, because MSNBC really does maintain the news/opinion distinction, and its sister network CNBC has a conservative bias on its opinion shows. The proper comparison for Obama/Fox is Bush/Air America, not Bush/MSNBC.

What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Liberals?
Catholic League President Bill Donohue sees through people like me. He realizes that all the reasons we liberals give for our positions are shams:
  • Gay people seeking marriage equality aren't looking for social support for long-term loving relationships, and they don't really want to adopt children or serve in the military, either.
  • Abortion rights? It's got nothing to do with women wanting to plan their lives better, raise only wanted children, or even just avoid propagating the genes of their rapists.
  • Those of us who aren't gay or female don't promote their rights out of compassion or a sense of justice.
  • The reason liberal Catholics, Protestants, and Jews stay in their churches and synagogues (or even devote their lives to a career in the ministry or religious orders) isn't that they interpret God's call differently than conservatives do.
  • Secular organizations like the ACLU aren't really trying to defend the Constitution or human rights.
Nope. We just made up all those reasons. And there's no use denying it any more, because Donohue has figured out what we really want: to completely destroy the civilization we're living in.

I'm amazed it has taken this long for somebody to see past all our subterfuge. I know I wake up every morning resenting that I had to be born into a society that more-or-less works, rather than the post-apocalyptic Mad-Max hellhole where I really belong. And that's why I work night and day to tear down the Judeo-Christian tradition that upholds this culture and keeps us all from eating each other. I'm sure all regular Sift readers feel much the same way.

If you want to see just how totally Donohue has us nailed, check out his new book Secular Sabotage: How Liberals are Destroying Religion and Culture in America. Or read his online WaPo column. Or, for the full dose, watch Pat Robertson interview him.

Seriously -- you knew I was kidding, right? -- I've been at a loss to imagine what I would say if I met Donohue. Facts and logic seem beside the point when someone embraces such sweeping stereotypes.
I know what you're thinking: What would Jon Stewart do? I don't know. But here's what Stephen Colbert did in 2006. BTW, if you clicked the Secular Sabotage link, did you happen to notice the blurb from Stephen Colbert?
Other religion news: I guess the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have had their 15 minutes of fame. So now it's time for the New New Atheists.

By coincidence I'm in the middle of Robert Wright's The Evolution of God, which probably counts as a new new atheist book. The main difference I'm seeing is that Wright has actual insight into Abrahamic religion -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam -- while Dawkins and Harris just take fundamentalism at face value and then cluelessly assume that all non-fundamentalist religion is just watered-down fundamentalism. (But I've ranted about that before.)

Associated Baptist Press tries to answer an interesting question: Why are conservative Christians so quick to email misinformation to each other? Isn't that covered under "bearing false witness"?

Short Notes
One comment I keep hearing about Republican in Congress is "These people are so far out there you can't even make fun of them." Yes we can. And this DSCC video is pretty good too. (Why do Apple commercials lend themselves to Democratic conversion?)

Or maybe they'll tear each other up faster than we can tear them down.

Matt Taibbi has a must-read article at Rolling Stone about the market manipulations that brought down Bear-Stearns and Lehman Brothers and the people who profited from it.
It would be an easy matter for the SEC to determine who killed Bear and Lehman, if it wanted to — all it has to do is look at the trading data maintained by the stock exchanges. But 18 months after the widespread market manipulation, the federal government's cop on the financial beat has barely lifted a finger to solve the two biggest murders in Wall Street history.
The key idea in this article is "naked short-selling" -- a practice where you claim to own shares of stock that you don't really own, and then sell them; you sell your IOU for the stock rather than the stock itself. The hardest thing to understand about naked short selling is how blatantly crazy it is. If you find yourself thinking "That can't be right", you're beginning to get it.

Train of Thought examines the enduring myth (contradicted by just about every poll) that the public option is unpopular. ToT sees this as a specific case of the general myth (also contradicted by most polls) that liberal ideas are out-of-step with mainstream America. (If the white-on-black formatting hurts your eyes, the same piece is black-on-white at DailyKos.)

Whatever happened to ... George W. Bush? Your whole office can find out today for only $19. At least he's not building houses for the homeless like that loser Jimmy Carter.

MoveOn's new ad in favor of the public option is pretty good.

Last week I ignored the story of the Louisiana justice of the peace who refuses to perform interracial marriages, figuring (i) it's a local issue, (ii) everybody (including Republican Governor Bobby Jindal) already seemed to be reacting with the proper outrage, and (iii) I have low expectations of Louisiana anyway.

It turns out that (ii) was unjustified, but not (iii). While every other Louisianan with a political pulse quickly condemned the guy (Keith Bardwell), Senator David Vitter (of D.C. Madam fame) has dodged and hedged. At first he didn't comment, and then when his non-comment started attracting attention he released a statement saying only that "judges should follow the law as written" without mentioning racism, interracial marriage, or Bardwell's future as a judge.

Vitter is up for re-election in 2010. Maybe he doesn't dare alienate the racist vote.

Another example of how profit and care don't go together: A Florida woman was given a knockout drug at a bar and woke up later assuming she had been raped. Doctors gave her an anti-AIDS drug as a precaution. Now, with that drug on her medical record, she's uninsurable.

The campaign to deny global warming seems to be working.

Ezra Klein outlines the possible public-option-like compromises being considered in the Senate.

I'm on the road next week. If you happen to be in Quincy, Illinois on Sunday morning, I'll be preaching at the Unitarian Church.

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