Monday, August 25, 2008

Chaos Descending

The critical problem in American public diplomacy directed toward the Muslim world is not one of 'dissemination of information' or even one of crafting and delivering the 'right' message. Rather it is a fundamental problem of credibility. Simply, there is none -- the United States today is without a working channel of communication to the world of Muslims and of Islam. -- Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication

In this week's Sift:
  • Pakistan. You can't appreciate Musharraf's resignation without knowing the story so far. Ahmed Rashid's Descent Into Chaos tells it.
  • Don't Trust the Polls. Those margin-of-error estimates don't even begin to tell you how far off the polls might be -- in either direction.
  • McCain's House Problem. If this means that the media is going to start covering what McCain actually says, that's big news.
  • Short Notes. Humorous things I found to distract myself from the polls. The Post continues to spin for McCain. Food gets political. Gorbachev defends Putin. And more.

By some combination of luck and foresight, I finished reading Ahmed Rashid's Descent into Chaos just a few days before Pervez Musharraf resigned as president of Pakistan. Rashid is a Pakistani journalist, and he has written a Pakistan-centered version of what's been going on in central Asia (especially Afghanistan) for the past couple decades. It's a view that the American public hasn't been getting.

First, let's start with what Pakistan is and where it comes from. When Britain gave independence to its Indian colony in 1947, Muslims didn't want to be a minority in a unified India, so they formed Pakistan. Separation was bloody, and India/Pakistan has been a cold war ever since. They've also fought several hot wars: India helped East Pakistan become Bangladesh in 1971 and Pakistan has tried several times to acquire India's Muslim-majority province of Kashmir. (The most engaging way to get an understanding of Kashmir is to read Salman Rushdie's novel Shalimar the Clown.) They both have nukes, which undoubtedly are targeted at each other.

Like many countries, Pakistan makes no ethnic/cultural sense. (See the ethnic map.) The northwestern border is the Durand Line, drawn by the British in 1893 to separate Afghanistan from their India colony. The line cuts the Pashtun tribes in half. Pakistan's big cities (Lahore and Islamabad, in the eastern Punjab region, and the port of Karachi in the Sindhi region) are like a Muslim version of India's cities: They have a sizable class of educated professionals who know English and are steeped in the British legal tradition. They have an on-again/off-again tradition of democracy, but they've been cursed with corrupt politicians who keep giving the army excuses to take over. The professional-class families (one of the characters in Ron Suskind's The Way of the World comes from such a family) see the economic boom in India and know that they could be getting rich too if they could just establish a stable democratic government. They're Muslims, but in a Westernized way. They pray and go to the mosque, but don't see why they should launch jihads or blow themselves up. (A gross simplification, but not bad as gross simplifications go.)

The army has a different set of interests. They hate India; they want Kashmir; they want to stay in power. The army was originally formed on the secular British model, but Musharraf's predecessor as military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, saw the usefulness of Muslim extremism. Now the officer corps and the ISI (Pakistan's CIA) are divided between radical Muslims and secularists (like Musharraf) who think radical Muslims are useful.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the United States also saw the usefulness of radical Muslims like Bin Laden. We funneled money through the ISI, and they supported Afghan guerrillas fighting the Soviets. (They also siphoned off some money to arm Kashmiri guerrillas fighting India). This is where Al Qaeda comes from. After the Soviets left, the various guerrilla leaders set themselves up as warlords, and made Afghanistan such a hell that Afghans largely welcomed the ISI's next creation, the Taliban. The Taliban made Afghanistan an international training ground for Muslim terrorists, including Al Qaeda, Kashmiris, Chechans, and others.

Then 9/11 happened, and Musharraf worried that the U.S. would turn on him. So (in exchange for billions in aid, mostly for the military) he "helped" us in Afghanistan, but also turned a blind eye while the ISI helped the Taliban. After the U.S. established the Karzai government in Afghanistan, Musharraf continued playing a double game. He tracked down just enough non-Afghan Al Qaeda leaders to keep Dick Cheney happy, while helping the Taliban reform in the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan. Today it's an open secret that the Taliban's government-in-exile operates out of the Pakistani border town of Quetta. Bin Laden is thought to be hiding in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), maybe near Peshawar.

As you (but apparently not Musharraf) would expect, the extreme Muslim groups have not been content to be pawns of the Islamabad government. Instead, Pakistan has its own Muslim insurgency now, which has attempted to assassinate Musharraf. The army is now fighting its own creation.

Another piece of Rashid's book is the story of the Bush administration's cynical relationship with democracy in central Asia. We invaded Afghanistan ostensibly to bring democracy. But outside of Kabul we re-established the power of the much-hated Afghan warlords, probably because they were easier to deal with than a democratic government. (That, along with Pakistan's aid, is why the Taliban is making a comeback -- many Afghans prefer them to the warlords.) In Pakistan we showed no interest in pushing Musharraf towards democracy until his government was starting to falter anyway, and then we cooked up a plan to co-opt a re-established Pakistani democracy by having Musharraf share power with the popular Benazir Bhutto.

The really unnecessary tragedy, though, is in the ex-Soviet Muslim countries: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. These countries had little previous relationship with America, and (at least as Rashid tells the story) people in this region had high hopes that an increased American presence in the region meant that democracy was coming. Instead, we supported whichever dictators would give us bases for our war in Afghanistan. As a result, the American brand in central Asia is ruined for generations, and one of these countries might well become the next Afghanistan.

Or maybe Pakistan will: After Bhutto was assassinated, the elections went ahead anyway. The new parliament set up to impeach Musharraf, and he resigned in hopes of staying out of prison. (Al Jazeera's English channel has a discussion of this that puts our news channels to shame. Part 2 is here.) There's a democracy of sorts now, but the army and the ISI still have considerable power and could take it all back in an instant. The new leaders might open up the potential of Pakistan's educated, English-speaking middle class, or they might follow the example of previous democratic leaders: loot a bunch of money, move it out of the country, and go into comfortable exile. If they do, it'll be the Taliban against the army, with a bunch of double-agents in the ISI and the officer corps. And the prize for the winner is Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

If you'd rather take your medicine with a spoonful of sugar, check out the (slightly out of date) music video parody "Hooray for Pakistan".

Don't Trust the Polls
The Russia-Georgia conflict gave McCain a bump in the polls, and brought the race to a dead heat. I figured this was a blip, and then there was the combination of McCain's gaffe about his houses (see below) and the Biden announcement, so I figure Obama will bump back, at least until the Republican convention starts. Anyway, this is a good time to point out one of those under-covered stories: Nobody knows how to poll this election.

Pollsters have a bunch of simultaneous problems. The biggest: Nobody knows who's going to vote. That's true in all elections, but moreso in this one. Whenever a poll says that it represents "likely" voters, somebody has made assumptions about who's going to vote. But nobody knows what assumptions to make about these issues:

The Democrat/Republican/Independent mix has shifted in the Democrats' favor.
One of the ways you normalize the data in a poll is to adjust the party mix. If, say, 45% of your sample identify themselves as Democrats, but Democrats are usually only 35% of the electorate, you figure you've accidentally oversampled Democrats and adjust the data to compensate. But after you make that same adjustment for several polls in a row, you wonder if maybe the number of Democrats has just gone up. Different polls handle this situation differently. (That's why Obama consistently runs worse in Gallup.)

Young people voted in the primaries.
Ordinarily, pollsters discount the sample of young people, because they are less likely to vote. Back in January, I was skeptical of the Obama campaign's prediction that a record turnout of young people would give it a victory in Iowa. But the youth turned out, and Obama won. How many young people will vote in November? Nobody knows. 18-24-year-old participation was up in 2004, though still not as high as other age groups. And age is a major factor in this election: Young people go overwhelming for Obama, old people for McCain. (WaPo characteristically describes this as "Obama's age problem" rather than "McCain's youth problem".) The most interesting theory I've heard: Young-voter participation is up because social networks like Facebook increase the peer pressure that politically active young people can put on their apathetic friends. (Follow young liberal voters via the Future Majority blog.)

Nobody is polling the voters who register late.
The first question a pollster typically asks is "Are you registered to vote?" If you say "no" the interview is over. But there's still plenty of time to register in most states, and Obama is putting an unprecedented level of effort into registering new voters. That's why Obama and McCain have about the same number of commercials, even though Obama is raising and spending much more money. Obama is spending money on field organization, while McCain is relying on the usual Republican Party organization. (If there's a dispute about this election, it probably won't be about voting machines or hanging chads. It will be about who voted and who was prevented from voting.)

Nobody is polling the cell-phone-only households.
Most polls call people over land lines. But a significant number of people just have cell phones. Mostly these are young, single people who probably favor Obama, but nobody knows how to estimate their impact.

The Bradley Effect.
Polls tend to overestimate the vote of black candidates. Maybe if you're ashamed to admit why you're voting against a candidate -- like because he's black -- you tell a pollster that you're undecided. The Bradley effect is erratic, and even its existence is debated, because there's always some other plausible explanation for the unexpected result. Take the New Hampshire primary, for example. The polls had Obama winning by high single digits, but instead Clinton won. Was that a Bradley effect, or did female voters have a last-minute reaction against the media's attempt to bury Clinton after her Iowa loss?

Conclusion: A lot of factors make this election hard to poll, and they pull in different directions. So you should run hard for your candidate right up to the minute the polls close. Don't give up. Don't get complacent. Nobody knows what's going to happen.

McCain's House Problem
The McCain Houses Gaffe has been like watching your arch-rival's quarterback grab his knee at the end of a play. It's a shame these kinds of things are so influential, but isn't it nice to see it happen to them for once?

In case you missed it, here's the story: Politico asked McCain how many houses he and Cindy own, and he said he'd have his staff get back to them. That touched off a huge media frenzy, which the Obama campaign stoked with this ad and then this one. The McCain people started swinging wildly to make it stop, complaining that Obama is rich too, attacking Obama with a sleazy ad about Tony Rezko (like all the Rezko stuff, it's innuendo not backed up by an accusation -- what exactly are they claiming Obama did?), playing the POW card yet again, and generally flailing around in all directions.

Like all these things, from Mike Dukakis in a tank to Obama's "I have become a symbol" misquote, it's overblown in any literal sense. As I listen to the interview, it doesn't sound like McCain is having a senior moment or even that he's out of touch. He's just doing what he so often does: dodging a question he doesn't want to answer and relying on the media not to call him on it, because question-dodging doesn't fit his Straight Talk Legend.

The interesting thing is that it didn't work. The media didn't cover for McCain this time. And when the campaign tried once again to use his POW experience as an all-purpose get-out-of-jail-free card, this time everybody pointed out how irrelevant that response was. They even made the comparison to Giuliani's "a noun, a verb, and 9/11."

And that may be the true significance of the story. Up until now, McCain has been covered according to the Liberty Valance Principle: "Print the legend." If that's starting to change, it's a big deal. I wonder if the mainstream media will take the next step, and knock down the myth that it's the campaign's fault, and McCain himself only reluctantly talks about his POW experience. In fact, he's been trading on it since his first campaign in 1982 and seldom goes for long without bringing it up.

To follow up on last week: McCain produced a witness, fellow POW Orson Swindle, to verify that he told the cross-in-the-dirt story before 1999. FireDogLake is unimpressed, pointing out that Mr. Swindle is a pro-McCain lobbyist who specializes in the corporate fake-grass-roots campaigns known as astroturf. (Not a guy you want to take at his word, in other words.) Andrew Sullivan observes that Swindle was telling a different story in May. And No More Mister Nice Blog adds that McCain's memories of Christmas in Hanoi were covered extensively in a 1995 book -- with no cross-in-the-dirt. Finally, I am feeling smug for refusing to attribute the story to The Gulag Archipelago until somebody could give me a page number. Apparently, evangelical writers attributed the story to Solzhenitsyn's book even though it's not there. If McCain stole the story, he stole it from them, not from Solzhenitsyn.

One more thing: If the McCain campaign wants to continue claiming the Vietnamese tortured him, they should denounce the Bush administration policy on detainees. If you buy the Bush definition of torture, McCain wasn't tortured.

Short Notes
I don't think I need to tell you that the Democratic convention is starting today and Obama chose Joe Biden as his vice president. I am neither thrilled nor horrified by Biden, so I won't use up a lot of words. I'll just point out that if you say Obama-Biden really fast, it sounds like it ought to mean something in German. obamabiden would be the infinitive form of a verb, maybe meaning something like: to pray that the darkness ends soon.

While I was bumming about McCain's post-Georgia rise in the polls, I watched amusing political videos. 23/6 took Fox News' hour-long documentary on Obama and reduced it to 1 minute. I think I don't need to watch the original now. The Onion News Network pundits discuss the 430 key demographics that will decide the election, like "cordoroy-wearing homosexuals" and "people who eat artisanal sandwiches". I found several political music videos, like a parody of "Hey there, Delilah" by an Obama fan who wants to be VP. I think he's making fun of Obama and his supporters, but I like it anyway. And there's this adaptation of the "Shaft" theme to Obama. Finally, the Funny or Die team brings us a commercial selling the Republican Party as if it were an antidepressant drug. ("Warning: Excessive use of the Republican Party may lead to recessions and needless wars or quagmires.")

The funniest typo of the season: AP refered to Joe Lieberman as "the Democratic vice presidential prick in 2000 who now is an independent."

Mikhail Gorbachev defended Russia in a NYT op-ed about the Georgian situation. And Thomas Friedman's interpretation doesn't make anybody look good. Neither does the view from Human Rights News.

The latest WaPo/ABC poll has Obama up 49-43 among registered voters and 49-45 among "likely" voters (whoever the heck they are). So how does the Post spin it? Neither the headline ("Support for Each Candidate Holds Steady") nor the Faulknerian 55-word opening sentence says which candidate is ahead. Instead we hear how close the race is and that people continue to think McCain would be a better commander-in-chief. Only readers who persevere find out that Obama is winning. If the numbers were reversed, I'm sure we'd see a nice simple headline like "McCain Maintains Lead".

Other Sifts: This week I noticed another, more focused weekly sift of the news: This Week in Tyranny on the blog Pruning Shears ("Pruning back the power of the executive branch"). It appears every Sunday. RFK Jr. and Brendan DeMelle had been doing a weekly entry on Huffington Post called Unearthed: News of the Week the Mainstream Media Forgot to Cover. But I haven't seen one since August 1. Hope they haven't given up on the idea.

The safety and healthfulness of the food system is one of those under-the-radar issues. Candidates and pundits rarely mention it, but more and more people are seeking out locally grown food, organic food, unprocessed food, and so on. (The Nashua Farmer's Market is visible from my window on Sundays.) Books like The Omnivore's Dilemma and Deep Economy are finding an audience. Well, now there's an advocacy web site that keeps track of the politics of food: Recipe for America. Here's an interview with Jill Richardson, one of the founders.

The McCain ads just get worse. This one starts out with the usual Obama-fans-are-mindless meme, but gradually shifts to a lock-up-the-white-women implication. A guy at the end says "Hot chicks dig Obama." A swiftboad-type group not officially part of the McCain campaign is putting $2.8 million into an ad linking Obama to the ex-Weather Underground education professor William Ayers. The ad appears to violate McCain-Feingold. Fox News announced that it wouldn't run the ad, but then showed it twice anyway.

For what it's worth, I think of Ayers as the liberal equivalent of Oliver North. Both committed politically motivated crimes a long time ago. Both got off on technicalities. Both have gone straight since. Conservatives pay no price for North, and Obama shouldn't pay one for Ayers. If anyone objects to this comparison, make them defend selling weapons illegally to the Iranians, as North did.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Unstacking the Matryoshkas

Great fleas have little fleas
Upon their backs to bite 'em.
And little fleas have lesser fleas,
And so, ad infinitum.
-- Augustus De Morgan
In this Week's Sift:
  • Matryoshkas. The media has been trying to tell the Georgia/Russia War as a story of Good Guys vs. Bad Guys. Actually, there are more than two guys, and they look a lot the same, except that one is very big, the next one a little smaller, and so on.
  • Will the Media Even Try to Keep McCain Honest? At the Saddleback Forum Saturday, McCain told a very moving story about his POW days. Why does it sound so much like a Solzhenitsyn story? And will the media connect this question to all the times McCain has fudged in the past?
  • Short Notes. Obama is still losing the racist vote. Clinton stars in a McCain commercial. Our military is taking this "Onward Christian Soldiers" thing way too seriously. Young voters actually did come out in 2004. And I punt Musharraf's resignation to next week.
A lot of nonsense has been written about Russia, Georgia, and the rebellious Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Last week I was just trying not to add to it, but this week I'd like to beat the nonsense back a little.

There's one temptation we should all try to resist: the idea that this story is really some other story. That it's Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, or David against Goliath, or Hitler trying to dismember Czechoslovakia. All of those stories (and a lot more) can throw light on some aspect of the Georgia situation, but they all cover up as much as they make clear.

Historical background. Centuries ago, this whole region (the Caucasus) was a bunch of tiny kingdoms you've never heard of. (The regions on the Rusisian side of the border are on this map. Georgia and its breakaway provinces/republics are here.) One-by-one they got conquered by the Czars, and later were absorbed wholesale into the Soviet Union, sometimes after after a second conquest during the Revolution. The Communists tried for decades to produce "the Soviet man" whose identity transcended all the divisions of language and culture and history, but it never really took.

Russia and Georgia were two Soviet republics that became independent when the USSR fell apart in 1991, but it's a mistake to think of them as nations in the cultural-identity sense. There certainly are a lot of people who think of themselves as Russians or Georgians, but on both sides of the border you can also find a lot of people who think of themselves as something else -- Ossetians, Chechens, and so on. Russians and Georgians play a role similar to white English-speakers in America; they're the largest group and they define the national stereotype, but they're not the whole country. Some of the minority nationalities tried to claim their own independence in the chaos following 1991, but the old Soviet borders have more-or-less held. The bloodiest of these conflicts was the Chechans' attempt to get free of Russia, which resulted in two wars and a continuing insurgency.

Ossetia wound up being split into North Ossetia (part of Russia) and South Ossetia (part of Georgia). The South Ossetians have been fighting for independence since 1991, with a ceasefire (but not a resolution) in 1992. Abkhazia fought a 1992-93 war for independence from Georgia, with a second flare-up in 1998. Abkhazia is more-or-less independent, and has done an ethnic cleansing that resulted in 250,000 ethnic Georgian refugees. But Georgia recognizes a government-in-exile and the situation was considered unresolved at the beginning of the recent Ossetian war.

Who's David? In short, it's a mess. If you're a Georgian refugee from the Abkhazian ethnic cleansing, you're David and Abkhazia is Goliath. If you're an Abkhazian or Ossetian separatist, you're David and Georgia is Goliath. To Georgia, Russia is Goliath -- unless you can convince the US or NATO to come in and be Goliath on your side. It's like those stacking Russian dolls, the matryoshkas. Little fleas have lesser fleas, ad infinitum.

And that's the answer to a question I've wondered about ever since I first heard about India and Pakistan fighting over Kashmir: Why do all these countries want to hang on to regions that don't want to belong to them? It's hard for Americans to remember that we did the same thing in our Civil War, and in much of the world there's an even better reason: None of these borders make sense, and if nations start letting this region or that one break away, there's a chance the whole thing could unravel, to the point that individual villages and families could end up proclaiming their sovereignty and fighting a massive battle of all-against-all. (I have tried in vain to hunt down a cartoon I remember from the time of the breakup of Yugoslavia: barbed wire divides two yards. In one the banner of the Republic of Bob is flying, while the other sports the flag of the Grand Duchy of Frank.)

This, by the way, is the problem with the plans to break Iraq into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish zones. What happens to the Turkmen or Assyrians in Kurdistan? Iraq is just the outer matryoshka; the next one -- Kurdistan -- is just the same, only smaller.

It's hard for Americans to wrap their minds around this situation. The majority of us -- all but the Native Americans and the descendents of slaves -- are volunteers or the descendents of volunteers. We're Americans because somebody in our line decided that they wanted to be Americans. And if we didn't like it, we could go somewhere else. But the rest of the world is not that way. They are what they are because somebody conquered somebody else a long, long time ago.

And they remember, which drives us nuts. During the Kosovo crisis, I was on a mostly American email list that had one zealous Serb. We were unable to have anything resembling a dialog. The Americans kept talking about democracy, but the Serb was oblivious to the fact that something like 80% of the Kosovars were ethnic Albanians now. Kosovo could never be anything but Serbian, and Serbia couldn't truly be Serbia without it. Kosovo was the site of the celebrated battle against the Ottomans in 1389, which the Serbians lost, but pledged never to forget. You couldn't erase that just by moving in a bunch of Albanians who breed like rabbits. Similarly, here's what the New York Times is reporting about the current situation:
The Georgians said that they were “always there,” that Abkhazia was a Georgian kingdom, and that only by expelling the ethnic Georgians at the end of the war did the Abkhaz make themselves a majority in the province. The Abkhaz said that they are the descendants of a “1,000-year-old kingdom,” that they were the victims of a massive campaign of Russian deportation in the 1860s, and then that Stalin forced them into the Georgian yoke.
Do you want to get into the middle of that? I know I don't.

Who's the Hitler-du-jour?
A lot of the current nonsense comes from American conservatives, for whom it is always 1938. Putin is Hitler, just like Ahmadinejad was Hitler last week, Bin Laden was Hitler the week before, and Saddam was Hitler a while before that. Any time you hear the word appeasement, somebody is claiming that it's 1938, that somebody is Hitler, and that our leaders have to choose whether they want to be Chamberlain (bad) or Churchill (good).

The big problem with the 1938 frame is that it sweeps a lot of details under the rug. All local issues are just noise. "Do you recall the precise details of the Sudeten Crisis that led to Nazi Germany's invasion of Czechoslovakia?" neocon Robert Kagan asked last Monday. "Of course not, because that morally ambiguous dispute is rightly remembered as a minor part of a much bigger drama." The bigger drama is world conquest, and the 1938 frame assumes that eventually we will either have to fight or surrender -- so isn't it obvious that we should fight now, before we lose any more allies?

Of course, there are other frames that sweep other details under the rug and lead to equally obvious (but opposite) conclusions. Maybe it's not 1938, maybe it's 1914, when (as Bismarck had predicted) "some damn fool thing in the Balkans" escalated into a big-power war that none of the big powers actually wanted. (In fact, the reason 1938 became 1938 was that Chamberlain didn't want it to be 1914 again.)

What's Putin thinking? Putin has his own frames. Maybe it's 1999, when NATO used a local ethnic struggle to break Kosovo off from Russia's ally Serbia. Breaking Abkhazia or South Ossetia away from Georgia, then, is just an example of turnabout-is-fair-play. Maybe it's 2003, when the Bush adminstration claimed again and again that it didn't need UN authorization to invade Iraq. In the 2004 campaign, Republicans ridiculed John Kerry's suggestion that the U.S. work within international structures and international law: "We will never seek a permission slip to defend the United States," Dick Cheney asserted.

So Putin doesn't think he needs a permission slip either. Might makes right, after all. We can't claim that principle for ourselves and then try to deny it to others. Nations will laugh at us. They are laughing at us. They ought to, because we are laughable. ("In the 21st century," says John McCain with a straight face, "nations don't invade other nations." And President Bush proclaims: "Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century.")

One illuminating (and fairly harsh) interpretation of what Putin is up to is by Vladimir Socor of the Eurasian Daily Monitor. The ultimate goal, in this interpretation, is to make NATO realize that accepting Georgia into membership would be more trouble than it's worth. The New York Times gives a good background summary, and a Russian intern at the Washington Post gives a more Putin-favorable interpretation of events.

Two sides. Fox News viewers got a surprising reminder that there are two sides to this story when a 12-year-old girl they brought on to dramatize the horrors of the war instead started thanking the Russian soldiers who rescued her. Her aunt blamed the Georgian government for everything, and a panicked Shepherd Smith broke for a commercial. One of my friends is a Russophile who watches Russian TV over the internet. He tells me the Putin-controlled media is full of similar testimonials. Georgian TV, I suspect, has different testimonials.

My take. I advise caution. We're in enough wars already, and the American public should try to remember how it was stampeded into Iraq. As for what we should hope for, here's what I'd like to see in all conflicts: An end to fighting, and the right of all refugees to either go home or be compensated for their losses and resettled permanently elsewhere. The administration is trying to commit us to a bigger idea: "Georgian territorial integrity", which is a fancy way of saying that Georgia is the right matryoshka, and that how it treats the smaller Ossetia and Abkhazia is nobody else's business. Somebody could convince me that's the right solution, but I'm not going to grant it without a good reason. And I'm certainly not willing to risk war with Russia for it unless somebody makes a much better case than I've heard so far.

McCain Makes Things Up. Will Anybody Call Him on It?
A damaging charge against John McCain's honesty has been propagating through the blogs since Sunday, and it will be interesting to see whether the mainstream media picks it up. Saturday night, during the candidate forum that mega-church-minister Rick Warren set up and moderated for his flock, McCain told a story about his POW experience. He has repeated this story many times during the campaign, and it appears in his book Faith of My Fathers. (I saw it in a Christmas mailing he blanketed New Hampshire with. He also put it into a TV ad.) The details vary (that's one of the problems with the story), but it always culminates in a compassionate North Vietnamese guard drawing a cross in the dirt, as a sign of Christian solidarity. It's a moving story, and (if you're cynical) sounds a little too perfect.

Sunday afternoon about 12:30, rickrocket on DailyKos pointed out that a similar story has been told about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. (It's been attributed to The Gulag Archipelago, but nobody has reported finding it there yet.) Checkable references to the Solzhenitsyn story predate Faith of My Fathers, which seems (at least so far) to be the first place McCain mentioned it.

By 3 o'clock dday on Hullabaloo had picked up the story, and by evening it was on Raw Story and Political Insider, which was then linked from Huffington Post. The next logical place for it to turn up is TPM, which didn't have it as of about 11 a.m. today. If this were a charge against Obama, it would get picked up by Fox News sometime today. Then the rest of the media would feel obligated to cover it, and by tomorrow the Obama campaign would have to respond to the charge somehow. Will the media treat McCain the same way? Wait and see.

One reason to believe McCain did steal the story from Solzhenitsyn (who he claims to have read) is that McCain does this kind of thing. His first statement on Georgia, for example, lifted pieces from Wikipedia without attribution. Several of the "Cindy's recipes" section of the McCain web site (now scrubbed) came word-for-word from the Food Network, and the cookie recipe Cindy submitted to Parents Magazine actually came from Hershey's.

If McCain did steal the cross-in-the-dirt story, it wouldn't be the first time he'd blown smoke about his POW experiences. In Faith of My Fathers McCain said that when his interrogators asked for the names of his squadron mates, he gave them names from the starting line-up of the Green Bay Packers. But when he told the story to a Pittsburgh TV station, the names came from the Steelers, not the Packers. These kinds of shifting details make you wonder whether there is any core truth to the story. Maybe it happened in a movie McCain saw, and not in Hanoi at all.

In addition to plagiarizing and stretching the truth, McCain tells whopping lies. Like this one where he says "I have not missed any crucial votes" on alternative energy sources. ThinkProgress points out that his vote would have made the difference on a number of votes, including an effort to extend tax credits for renewable energy last December. Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope wrote:
I have just listened to carefully coached staff members for Senator John McCain lie repeatedly about the Senator's failure to show up and vote on the first Senate economic-stimulus package, which included tax incentives for clean energy. I am in a state of shock not because of the Senator's vote, although that disappointed me, nor over his desire to avoid public accountability for that vote -- that's politics. But to carefully coach your Senate staff (I assume the Chief of Staff, not the Senator, was the author of this shameful performance) in how to mislead callers in such depth is appalling, and surprising, because it was almost certain to be found out.
But found out by whom? That was February -- did you hear about it until now? McCain is the straight talker; the media says so, and they seem to have no interest in finding out anything different. The Carl Popes of this world can jump up and down all they want, but who is listening?

Now, the stolen recipes and the football fibbing don't have anything to do with policy. But Al Gore was constantly hounded by such stories in 2000, with much less substance behind them. He was a "serial exaggerator" and you couldn't write anything about Gore without mentioning that he claimed to have invented the internet or that Love Story was really about him.

This time around, the media will raise obscure connections between Obama and Louis Farrakhan and question him about baseless rumors that Michelle denounced "whitey" in public. Will they raise the question of whether McCain stole the cross story? Will they tie it together with his long pattern of exaggerations and lies? Somehow I doubt it.

Short Notes
According to the Borowitz Report, a new poll by Duh Magazine shows Obama trailing among racists. "In a head-to-head match-up, likely bigots chose Sen. McCain over Sen. Obama by a margin of one thousand to one, with a majority of racists saying they 'strongly disagree' with Sen. Obama's decision not to be white." ... Duh editor Plugh says the poll indicates that Sen. Obama 'has his work cut out for him' if he is going to make up lost ground among racists.

As soon as Hillary Clinton said, "I know Senator McCain has a lifetime of experience that he will bring to the White House, and Senator Obama has a speech that he gave in 2002" -- we all knew it would turn up in a McCain commercial. It has. The ad also contains pro-McCain statements from other major Democrats, like Howard Dean and John Kerry (both look younger than they do now). But no one else specifically denigrates Obama in comparison to McCain. There's a reason: One of the unwritten rules of the primary campaign -- which all the other candidates lived by -- was not to give Republicans that kind of fodder. If Clinton were the nominee, the Republicans would not have a McCain-is-better-than-Clinton quote from Obama or any of the other Democratic candidates. Thanks, Hillary.

Chris Rodda on DailyKos lifts the lid on yet another example of the Christianization of our military.

Interesting graph over at Matthew Yglesias' new blog. Kerry's effort to get young voters to the polls actually worked, just not well enough.

Pakistan's President Musharaff resigned rather than face impeachment. More on this next week. For now I'll point you to this interview with Ahmed Rashid, author of a very good book, Descent into Chaos.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Saving Each Other

We all save one another. It's the way of the world. -- Benazir Bhutto

In this week's Sift:
  • The Way of the World. Ron Suskind's new book reads more like a novel than a history.
  • "The One" ... from Satan? McCain's ad couldn't really be referring to the rumors that Obama is the Antichrist. Could it? (Plus other election notes.)
  • Look! A Bright Shiny Sex Scandal! Yes, I supported Edwards. No, I don't care whether he's the kid's father.
  • Short Notes. Bush as hurricane. A good place to start understanding the health care problem. Big government seems to work in Denmark. And the Wall Street Journal declares victory in Iraq.

The Way of the World
Ron Suskind's new book The Way of the World has been all over the news the last couple weeks, but the stories about it really don't prepare you for what it is.

Most of the coverage has focused on the specific charges the book makes. Like this one: Saddam's head of intelligence (Tahir Jalil Habbush, the Jack of Diamonds in the Coalition's deck of cards ) was a British informant. Before the war, he met a British agent in Jordan and told him the straight truth: Saddam's games were all about keeping the Iranians from realizing that he had no WMDs. (Saddam didn't take our invasion threat seriously. "Why would the Americans want to take over this country?" Habbush reported him saying. "It would be a nightmare.") The British passed that report on to the Bush administration, which ignored it along with a similar secret interview with Saddam's foreign minister Naji Sabri. Instead, they hid Habbush in Jordan after the invasion, and used him to forge evidence of a false Saddam/Al Qaeda connection.

From stories like this, I was expecting a journalistic tome, with fifty pages of dense references. Instead, The Way of the World is written like one of those portrait-of-an-era historical novels, maybe Doctorow's Ragtime. Suskind follows a cast of just-outside-the-headlines characters as they make their way through Bush's America: a young Muslim from an influential Pakistani family, working in D.C. and living with his college buddies (a straight Christian and a gay Jew) in a "sit-com worthy" apartment; the pro-bono lawyer for a Guantanamo detainee; an ex-CIA guy now a Blackwater executive; an Afghan exchange student trying to cope with America; and a bureaucrat trying to get the rest of the government to think seriously about how terrorists might get nuclear weapons.

Their stories weave around a big, messy novel-like theme: that moral authority is the only thing powerful enough to keep the world from spinning out of control, and you get it by doing the right thing without asking for anything back. Force and cynicism seem like the safe path, but ultimately they lead everyone to destruction. The title comes from a casual comment by the soon-to-die Benazir Bhutto:
They think they're saving you, and you think you're saving them. That's where the trouble starts. Someone says, "I saved you, now here's what I want." And it's the same with big countries and little ones, religious leaders and their followers, even husbands and wives. When things really work, though, it's because people realize that this is a lie, that, really, we all save one another. It's the way of the world. Things work out for the best when everyone makes it, together, when we manage to save each other.
Who heard that statement and wrote it down? No clue. Suskind has obviously done mountains of research, but the book has no references at all. Sometimes he quotes specific people, but usually he just tells stories and paints scenes. You trust him or you don't.

The L.A. Times thinks the book doesn't work, but I couldn't put it down. It depends on what you're expecting, I guess. Reading The Way of the World as a journalist or historian has got to be frustrating. You sit there wondering, "How does he know that?" From a novel-reader's point of view, though, it works fine. The characters are well-drawn and fascinating. The challenging theme pulls it together without getting in the way.

"The One" ... from Satan?
When McCain's attack ad "The One" came out a couple weeks ago, I thought: "Wha?" Why would a major-party presidential candidate waste his money promoting images of crowds wildly cheering his opponent?

Well, Time's Amy Sullivan has an explanation: It's a dog whistle to the extreme religious Right, that ... no, I can't say it, I have to let Sullivan say it:
It's not easy to make the infamous Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential campaign seem benign. But suggesting that Barack Obama is the Antichrist might just do it.
Yep, that's it. "The One" is supposed to feed speculation that Obama is the Antichrist. Seriously. The point, according to Sullivan, is to motivate evangelicals (who otherwise aren't excited by McCain) to get out and vote.

Sullivan notes similarities between the ad and the Left Behind series of novels about the End Times (70 million sold), where the Antichrist is "a charismatic young political leader named Nicolae Carpathia."
Carpathia is a junior Senator who speaks several languages, is beloved by people around the world and fawned over by a press corps that cannot see his evil nature, and rises to absurd prominence after delivering just one major speech.
And Sullivan goes on to claim this:
Perhaps the most puzzling scene in the ad is an altered segment from The 10 Commandments that appears near the end. A Moses-playing Charlton Heston parts the animated waters of the Red Sea, out of which rises the quasi-presidential seal the Obama campaign used for a brief time earlier this summer before being mocked into retiring it. The seal, which features an eagle with wings spread, is not recognizable like the campaign's red-white-and-blue "O" logo. That confused Democratic consultant Eric Sapp until he went to his Bible and remembered that in the apocalyptic Book of Daniel, the Antichrist is described as rising from the sea as a creature with wings like an eagle.
My first reaction was that Sullivan was probably making a lot out of not much. The Conservatives for McCain web site certainly thinks so. (At the very least they're correct that Sapp's Daniel reference is weak.)

Then I hit a YouTube link off of some pro-McCain video and there I was in Obama-is-the-Antichrist land. (Enjoy your stay. Visit our souvenir stand.) I followed links from one video to the next: here, here, and here. You can keep going for a very long time by checking the Related Videos list. Some of the videos only have about a thousand viewings, but this one has almost 30,000 and this one 87,000

And while religious-Right heavyweight Hal Lindsey (author of the 35-million-copy seller The Late, Great Planet Earth and other apocalyptic hits) won't say Obama is the Antichrist, he does point out that Obama is like the Antichrist:
Obama is correct in saying that the world is ready for someone like him – a messiah-like figure, charismatic and glib and seemingly holding all the answers to all the world's questions. And the Bible says that such a leader will soon make his appearance on the scene. It won't be Barack Obama, but Obama's world tour provided a foretaste of the reception he can expect to receive. He will probably also stand in some European capital, addressing the people of the world and telling them that he is the one that they have been waiting for. And he can expect as wildly enthusiastic a greeting as Obama got in Berlin. The Bible calls that leader the Antichrist. And it seems apparent that the world is now ready to make his acquaintance.
OK, I know how this game works. When someone like Lindsey declares "the Bible says ..." it really means "the Bible provides some mysterious phrases and images that an imaginative person can run with." But let's play along. Does this even work within the worldview that takes end-times prophesies seriously? Back in March, CNN's conservative talk show host Glenn Beck asked noted apocalyptic expert John Hagee about Obama being the Antichrist "because I receive so much email on this, and I think a lot of people do." Hagee said no. And in 1999 Jerry Falwell said "If he's going to be the counterfeit of Christ, he has to be Jewish." That's the one major religion I haven't heard attributed to Obama. (Wait, I spoke too soon. Typing "obama is a jew" into Google got me this article.) So, no. A serious student of the end times would not conclude that Obama is the Antichrist.

But what conclusions should we draw about McCain and his ad? First, the McCain campaign didn't start the Obama/Antichrist meme, which has been out there for nearly two years. But they surely know about it and realize they're exploiting it. Second, "The One" is not anything as direct as a scene-by-scene allegory. It's a suggestion, not a statement. It's deniable. And some of its appeal mirrors the sharp-but-harmless sense of humor of liberals who put "Republicans for Voldemort" stickers on their cars.

Except that nobody seriously believes in Voldemort, while some people not only believe in the Antichrist, but might be willing to act on that belief. And that's where this story passes freaky and goes all the way to scary: A number of the videos I watched referred to the prediction -- I'm guessing this is from Left Behind, because it's not in any Bible I've ever read -- that the Antichrist will be shot in the head and survive. People mention this as if it would be the sure sign.

After hearing that, doesn't any decent candidate step back and say "We're not touching this"?

Obama started hitting back in the last two weeks, with the ads "Pocket", "Low Road", "Original", and "New Energy". They're all issue-oriented, and none paints McCain as anything much worse than George Bush's successor. An Obama supporter does a 3-minute YouTube piece that is a little sharper. And Obama's deputy economic policy director takes 3 minutes to go point-by-point through a deceptive McCain ad.

Paris Hilton also hit back against the McCain "Celebrity" ad. ("See you at the debates, bitches.") And the news-comedy site 23/6 does an edition of their ongoing series "If they IM'd" with McCain and Hilton.

Exhibit #46913 in the case that the Washington Post is not liberal: Sunday's Post has an article headlined: "Obama Tax Plan Would Balloon Deficit, Analysis Finds". Only the readers who make it to paragraph 10 learn that John McCain's tax plan balloons the deficit even worse. Much worse, in fact, unless there are "massive spending cuts" that McCain has never specified.
Exhibit #46929: When McCain was making scurrilous charges and Obama had yet to respond, WaPo columnist David Broder didn't think the negative tone of the campaign was worth mentioning. But almost the instant that Obama started hitting back, there's Broder with an "even-handed" column wishing we could get "back to the high road" that McCain was never on to begin with.

Broder presents the low-road campaign as if it were some kind of star-crossed tragedy, attributable to no one in particular ... except maybe Obama. Because this would never have happened, Broder assures us, if Obama had accepted McCain's offer for ten joint town hall meetings: "Since the idea of joint town meetings was scrapped, the campaign has featured tough and often negative ads and speeches." In Sunday's follow-up, Broder ends with: "McCain's offer of weekly joint town meetings still stands. It is not too late for Obama to change his mind and take up this historic offer."

So basically, WaPo's even-handed David Broder is playing the good-cop role for McCain. McCain throws a few below-the-belt punches, then a sympathetic Broder comes into the room and says, "It wouldn't have to be this way, Barack, if you'd just cooperate."

Amy Silverman of the Phoenix New Times gives her long-term perspective as someone who has been covering the McCains locally for a very long time. And Progressive Media Research tears down McCain's claim that he has never sought pork-barrel projects for his state.

Look! A Bright Shiny Sex Scandal!
I'm a little surprised by my own reaction to the John Edwards affair: I don't care. I haven't read his statement or Elizabeth's. I'm not curious about the details. I don't care if he's the child's father or not.

Now, I recognize all the reasons why people are upset: What was he thinking, either when he had the affair or when he decided to go ahead and run for president anyway? It's scary to imagine what would be happening now if he had won the primaries and this story was coming out just weeks before the convention that was supposed to nominate him. Or if Obama had already named him VP.

But none of that happened. Edwards' political career is pretty much over now, at least for the foreseeable future, and that seems like an adequate public punishment. As for the price he will pay or deserves to pay in his private life ... it's impossible to see into other people's marriages, even though we all imagine that we can.

I voted for Edwards, said nice things about him online, and gave money to his campaign. I did all that for reasons that remain valid: He had the first and best health care plan among the major candidates. He made poverty an issue. More than any of the other candidates, he "got it" -- that Democrats have to figure out how to stand up to the Right rather than find new and better ways to imitate them. It's a shame something from his personal life has blown all that away.

And why was I surprised by what followed? Pundits immediately started sparring over whether the scandal hurts Obama (because Edwards endorsed him) or McCain (because he's had an affair). It's sad. We're fighting two wars; our civil liberties, the transparency of our government, and the separation of powers have all seriously eroded during the past 7 years; our financial system is in trouble; unemployment is rising; our health care system is badly broken; and the 2009 budget deficit is now estimated at $490 billion. McCain and Obama have very different ideas about how to deal with these problems. Are people really going to base their votes on a sex scandal about somebody else? I'm with digby:
we use this natural fascination with private sexual behavior in the United States these days as some sort of proxy for the public character of our politicians, as if this tells us something so important about them that it supersedes anything else we might know about them. But it's a fallacy, since we can't know enough about their marriages or their inner lives to be able to accurately judge these behaviors. So we end up with some sort of cookie cutter morality that leads us to reject a politician who steps out on his wife, allegedly because he's shown a propensity for "reckless behavior" or lying, while we accept someone who has lied repeatedly in his public life and shown a propensity for recklessness with public policy, because they are harder to understand. But the truth is that private behavior is not a good guide to leadership. There have been too many examples of fine leaders who led complicated personal lives and too many examples of bad ones who never strayed.
Short Notes
The funniest thing I saw this week: the Onion's "Bush Tours America to Survey Damage Caused By His Disastrous Presidency". The story is framed as if Bush's presidency were a hurricane. Kansas is described as "one of the fifty states in the direct path of the presidency."

Slate pulls together a bunch of good links on what's wrong with the health care system and how to fix it.

Like most Americans, I had trouble finding the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia on a map. (It's northwest of Azerbaijan, if that helps.) Now they're at war with Russia over a place I had never heard of: Ossetia, whose northern half is in Russia and southern half is in Georgia. Anything more I could write at this point would only add to the ignorance, so I'll settle for linking to some background here and here.

Mission Accomplished II: Guess what? "The war in Iraq is over. We've won." So says the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens. That's the kind of scoop the WSJ never used to get in the bad old days before Rupert Murdoch bought it. Unfortunately, the four U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq in the five days following Stephens' announcement will not be attending the victory parade.

You have to admire the courage of someone like Stephens. If he turns out to be wrong ... it will never be mentioned again and he will go on being a pundit. That's how things work.

Thomas Friedman describes how Denmark became energy independent by the artful use of taxes and government regulations.

Here's another of those graphs showing exactly how big the gap between the very rich and the rest of us is getting.

On FireDogLake Blue Texan annotates Bush's message to the Chinese, which is a good lesson in what has happened to America's moral authority over the past seven years. And Julia pulls together comments on the Hamdan case.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Recalling the People

Though written constitutions may be violated in moments of passion or delusion, yet they furnish a text to which those who are watchful may again rally and recall the people. -- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Joseph Priestley, 1802. (Jefferson, who was president at the time he wrote this, was referring to the unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts of the Adams administraton.)

In This Week's Sift:
  • The Rule of Law Struggles to Re-assert Itself. A variety of just-below-the-radar developments in a wide range of Bush administration scandals.
  • Election notes. McCain goes hard negative. McCain 2000 vs. McCain 2008. A badly reported Obama quote touches off a media frenzy about his "arrogance". The race card. And maybe McCain really isn't against global warming after all.
  • Other short notes. The Knoxville shooting is terrorism. Al Gore is really Jor-El. Pakistan might not be on our side. The housing crisis has a ways to go. And more.
The Rule of Law Struggles to Re-assert Itself
This week saw a number of developments on the various fronts where the Bush administration has been flouting the rule of law. These days you need a good diagram to keep all the issues straight.

A number of scandals revolve around this point: Three kinds of people work for an administration
  • political operatives, who work for the president and/or his party.
  • political appointees like the cabinet and the U.S. attorneys. Awarding these jobs to political allies and people who share the president's values is entirely legal, traditional, and even appropriate. Nonetheless, once in office these officials have well-defined and long-established duties to the United States that should supersede their loyalty to the president and his party.
  • career government employees. These folks are supposed to be non-partisan. They continue in office after the administration changes and their jobs are not supposed to be political spoils.You don't want FBI agents or IRS auditors or TSA airport security people asking you who you voted for.
The essence of the Department of Justice scandals is that the administration ignored these distinctions. In the U.S. attorney scandal they tried to make political appointees act like political operatives, and fired ones who wouldn't play ball. The Siegelman case is about prosecutors who would play ball, prosecuting a Democratic governor to get him off the political stage. The Goodling scandal is about treating career positions as political appointments.

Let's start with Goodling. Last Monday the Department of Justice's inspector general issued a report about Monica Goodling's hiring practices while she was one of the top DoJ officials. Here's the conclusion:
Our investigation found that Goodling improperly subjected candidates for certain career positions to the same politically based evaluation she used on candidates for political positions, in violation of federal law and Department policy.
When interviewing candidates, Goodling asked questions like "What is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?" The problem: Career Justice employees don't serve George W. Bush. They serve the United States of America. Or at least, they do under the rule of law.

dday on Hullabaloo culls through the inspector general's report for the details. The sleaziest story was how Goodling apparently got rid of a Justice Department prosecutor because she was rumored to be a lesbian.

If we're lucky, the worst that comes out of Goodling's misdeeds is that the career employees at Justice will be skewed towards religious and political conservatives for years to come. But dday makes a more ominous speculation: If these people think of themselves as political appointees, whose real career path is in the conservative/Republican political establishment, then they will essentially be moles in any future Democratic administration.
[Y]ou are going to see all kinds of whistleblowers and martyrs coming out of the woodwork in an Obama Administration, telling lurid and probably false tales accusing them of exactly what the Bush Administration put into practice and more. And they will be held up on the right as shining examples of patriots who understand how the rule of law must be respected at all times.
Moving on to the next scandal, federal Judge John Bates (a Republican who worked with Kenneth Starr on the Whitewater investigation of Clinton, appointed a judge by President Bush) rejected the adminstration's claims that former administration officials Harriet Miers and John Bolton should be exempt from congressional subpoena to testify about the firing of the U.S. attorneys. Marty Lederman analyzes the ruling here, and provides links to the text.

Karl Rove is offering the same excuse for his refusal to testify to the House Judiciary Committee about the Siegelman case. The committee voted to recommend that he be charged with contempt of Congress, putting him on the same path that Miers and Bolton went down. The Bush Justice Department -- being a political operation and not a department of justice -- refused prosecute the charge against Miers and Bolton, and presumably won't prosecute Rove either. The congressional investigation into the Siegelman case was requested by bipartisan group of 44 former state attorneys general.

Now, administrations have claimed executive privilege before, but these cases take it to a whole new level. A proper claim would be on a question-by-question basis: If Congress asked Rove or Miers or Bolton about their conversations with the president, they might well claim that those conversations are privileged. But refusing to show up at all, before knowing exactly what the committee will ask -- well, it's stunning, and Judge Bates found it "entirely unsupported by existing case law." And if Rove and the president were not involved in the Siegelman case (as Rove claims), then it's hard to imagine how executive privilege legitmately comes into play at all.

So Miers and Bolton, and presumably Rove down the road, have a court order telling them to submit to a congressional subpoena. It used to be that in America you didn't need to wonder what would happen next -- they'd show up. But under the Bush Imperium, who knows?

Leaving the Politics Department Justice Department, you probably thought that Hurricane Katrina malfeasance stories were over by now. But no, there's still one more: FEMA has warehoused a bunch of victim supplies ever since, and has now declared them to be government surplus -- without ever asking anybody in Louisianna or Mississippi if they wanted the stuff.

And finally, Valtin on DailyKos argues that the timeline on torture goes back to December, 2001 -- more than half a year earlier than previously thought. By July, 2002, (which is currently believed to be when the torture story starts) a number of presidential findings and other legal fig leaves were in place. But if the story starts sooner, Valtin claims, the war crimes charges are harder to dodge.

Election Notes
Trash Talk Replaces Straight Talk. During the last two weeks, during and after Obama's successful foreign tour, the McCain campaign has gone full frontal negative, complete with some subtle but definite racial overtones. They threw around some false charges about Obama's cancelled visit to a military hospital in Germany, blamed Obama for rising gas prices, said Obama would rather lose a war than lose an election, and then did some negative ads they claim are humorous: Celebrity and The One, which poke at the adoration Obama gets. (Seems like sour grapes to me. McCain would think it was great if he could draw huge, enthusiastic crowds. But he can't, so it's bad.)

It amazes me how many people can't see the Obama-and-slutty-white-women theme in the visuals of the Celebrity ad. Or the racial odor to the whole he's-not-one-of-us theme or the he-doesn't-know-his-place theme in the other attacks. (David Gergen gets it. So does Bob Herbert.) (Here's a parody of Celebrity. The official catalog of McCain ads is here. )

Other comments on the low road McCain is taking: the Washington Independent, Time's Joe Klein, the Economist, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, Salon's Joe Conason, New York Magazine, and David Kiley of that well-known liberal bastion Business Week. Kiley writes:
What the McCain campaign doesn’t want people to know, according to one GOP strategist I spoke with over the weekend, is that they had an ad script ready to go if Obama had visited the wounded troops saying that Obama was...wait for it...using wounded troops as campaign props. So, no matter which way Obama turned, McCain had an Obama bashing ad ready to launch.

Not the man he used to be. The word is starting to get out that if you liked McCain in 2000, you need to take a second look because he has changed.

You can tell that a meme is catching on when a bunch of independent commenters use the same words. Thursday I was reading David Ignatius' WaPo column about how McCain should return to his "true voice" -- that of his 1999 autobiography Faith of My Fathers. WaPo lets you leave comments, so I started mine "The McCain of 1999 is long gone."

By coincidence, my comment appeared right after two others: "The John McCain you write about is long gone ..." and "McCain is no longer that man ..." Now, sometimes stuff like that happens because a bunch of dittoheads repeat the same Rush Limbaugh line. But since I am one of the people doing it this time, I know that I believed I thought of those words myself.

Here are some specifics: McCain 2000 had a conflicted opinion on abortion and expressed concern about the "illegal and dangerous operations" that women would suffer without Roe v. Wade. McCain 2008 is unequivocal: "Roe v. Wade is a flawed decision that must be overturned." McCain 2000 criticized the proposed Bush tax cut by talking about the "lucky millionaire" who would get a much bigger break from Bush's plan than McCain's. McCain 2008 wants to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, and make more cuts that will benefit the wealthy. McCain 2000 denounced religious right leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance" and decried "the evil influence that they exercise over the Republican Party." McCain 2008 gave the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University and sought the endorsement of an even nuttier agent of intolerance, John Hagee.

Fox News is making McCain look younger by sneaking in video from his 2000 campaign.
This kind of stuff never happens to Republicans. WaPo reporter Dana Milbank blogged a second-hand, unsourced Obama quote that made him sound puffed-up: "This is the moment . . . that the world is waiting for. ... I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions." TV pundits picked this up and ran with it, echoing the Republican talking points that Obama is "arrogant" and "presumptuous".

Except ... it turns out the quote was way out of context, and the context turns it completely around. WaPo's The Trail blog eventually got around to publishing the preface to the quote: "It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign -- that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It's about America. I have just become a symbol."

The LA Times "On the Media" column comments: "It all would be quite funny if many people didn't seem to be inhaling this multimedia stink bomb as if it were fragrant truth."

Naturally, no apologies from anyone involved, and the narrative about Obama's uppity nature rolls on. The lesson -- which we should have learned in 2000 and 2004 -- is that gaffes aren't required. Once a narrative is in place, supporting evidence can be manufactured as needed.

Another tale of manufactured outrage begins (if you tell the story properly) here: On June 27, the McCain campaign released an attack ad that featured, among other images, Barack Obama's face on a dollar bill. Obama then said this:
what they’re going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, he’s not patriotic enough. He’s got a funny name. You know, he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills, you know. He’s risky.
And the McCain campaign responded: "Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck."

But the McCain ad that started this exchange isn't mentioned by anybody in the media, so Obama's dollar-bill comment seems to come completely out of the blue. As a result a poll shows that 53% of the public buys the line that Obama is injecting race into the campaign.

Meanwhile, zenbowl on DailyKos shows some of the places where "the race card" has already been played.

Bob Cesca jumps on the Obama-isn't-one-of-us theme:

The Republicans ... set the tone of the debate. The corporate media accepts their terms, their rules and their frames as a given and the Democrats are expected to jump and dash and explain themselves based upon those givens, irrespective of how ludicrous they happen to be.

Prove to us that you're one of us. Prove to us that you support the troops. Prove to us that you're patriotic. Prove to us that you're not an effete snob. Prove to us that you can talk to a gathering of bumpkins in a diner like a plainspoken Republican can. Prove to us that you're not the enemy. Prove to us that you're not presumptuous.

McCain, meanwhile, wears $500 Italian shoes, married an heiress who has $225,000 of credit card debt she's too rich to pay attention to, and he's never had a non-government job. But for some reason he never needs to prove that he's one of us.

I've been ignoring the endless VP speculation on the blogs because it's a waste of time. But I want to get my Republican prediction on record: Mitt Romney.

A Washington Post editorial makes the connection between Republicans' vague, trumped-up charges of vote fraud and attempts to "scare new voters away from the polls".
Global warming is supposed to be the signature issue that proves McCain is different from Bush. But it seems to depend on the audience. While talking to CNN's conservative pundit Glenn Beck, McCain adviser Steve Forbes made McCain's cap-and-trade system for regulating greenhouse gases sound like window dressing: "I don’t think those things are going to get very far as people start to examine the details of them."

Short Notes: Not election
I've been wondering what to say about the shooting at the Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville. (The most complete set of links is at the UUA web site.) I'm a UU myself, and have to confess that it's unsettling to think of someone intentionally targeting members of my faith, even if it is just one lone bozo.

What I find missing from the general media coverage is the word terrorism. If this were a Sunni shooting up a Shia mosque in Baghdad, we'd all instantly recognize it as terrorism. When the Earth Liberation Front burns down a house, the New York Times calls it terrorism. But not here. White conservatives can't be terrorists, it seems.

But the next time someone tries to tell me there haven't been any terrorist attacks in America since 9-11, I'm going to mention Knoxville.

The pattern continues: Iraq casualties down, Afghanistan casualties up. In July, 13 coalition troops (all Americans) were killed in Iraq. (I almost wrote "only 13". It's easy to get into that mindset, and forget that you're talking about people's lives.) 30 killed in Afghanistan; it's harder to tell from the way the web site is laid out, but at least 20 of them were Americans.

Sometimes a piece is just funny, even if you like the guy it's making fun of. The Onion inserts Al Gore (or Gor-Al) into the Jor-El role of the Superman myth: Al Gore Places Infant Son in Rocket to Escape Dying Planet. It makes Gore look ridiculous, but the parallels really are striking.

If you've ever wondered how to get your letters to the editor published, author John K. Wilson explains how. He wrote this on the same day he got a letter published in the New York Times, so he must know what he's talking about. (I've also gotten a bunch of letters published, and agree completely with what he's saying, especially Rule 9: Make One Point.)

Remember how Pakistan was supposed to be on our side? Well, maybe not. The ISI -- Pakistan's version of the CIA -- might have been behind the bombing of the Indian embassy in Afghanistan, which killed 54 people. If so, then they're working with an ally of Al Qaeda.

In an interview in the current issue of Barron's (no link without subscription), NYU economist Nouriel Roubini predicts bad loans from the housing bubble could eventually mount to $2 trillion. Bank write-offs so far are "only" $300 billion.
We are in the second inning of a severe, protracted recession, which started in the first quarter of this year and is going to last at least 18 months, through the middle of next year. A systemic banking crisis will go on for awhile, with hundreds of banks going belly up.

Insiders in the industry know that the debate about offshore drilling is largely moot, at least in the short term. Consider this paragraph from the most recent annual report of Transocean, the world's largest offshore drilling company:
Our ultra-deepwater, deepwater and harsh-environment fleet is almost fully committed in 2008, with little availability in 2009 and 2010. We also have a large number of long-term, forward-start contracts, some of which provide fleet commitments beyond 2014. Similarly, few of our midwater rigs have availability in 2008, with a substantial portion of our midwater fleet contracted well into 2009. In addition, our jackup fleet is more than 80 percent committed in 2008. Our significant contract backlog gives us confidence that we will continue to see strong financial performance in the years ahead.
In other words, the bottleneck in the industry is a shortage of rigs, not places to drill. Releasing more land to offshore drilling would probably not increase the number of wells drilled between now and 2011.

Here's a great graphic, illustrating that the U.S. isn't as healthy as the other rich countries. Our death rate for children under 5 is about the same as Cuba's and way below Sweden's.