Thursday, August 29, 2002

We're Still Waiting. The American Prospect's Robert Kuttner chimes in to remind Democrats in Congress that we are still waiting for them to take a serious stand on the Iraq issue, and to start laying into the Bush administration for its numerous abject policy failures. I hope someone is listening. People have been saying this for the better part of the last year, but Democrats have been totally abdicating their responsibility as the minority party. As a proud and loyal Democrat, I'm getting pretty pissed off. The editorial page of the New York Times has become the vanguard of dissent, not because they are particularly daring or subversive, but because they are saying the things that Democrats should be saying. How is the electorate supposed to be energized for the upcoming midterms if there is no leadership coming from the Democrats. Right now, the big political choice in this country is a between terrible domestic agenda mixed with a confused and self-contradictory foreign policy agenda, and no agenda at all.

Come on, Democrats. I know you have an agenda. I know you have passions, and fire. I know that some of you can even stand up and inspire people with a vision of what this country, and this world, could be like with better leadership. So stand up and say it, Goddammit!!

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

The Bond Project: Thunderball. The fourth film in the Bond series was easily the biggest up to that time. It was the longest, most expensive, most epic, most challenging Bond film at that time. Also the most successful. It's also reasonably good, but I wouldn't put it any more strongly than that.

The Bond pattern is not so much in evidence in this film, because it is so spectacular. One gets the feeling when watching this film in the context of its predecessors, that the producers really wanted to raise the bar. And they did, you have to admit. The sets are extraordinary (and I personally think that production designer Ken Adam deserves as much credit as anyone for the Bond phenomenon of the 1960s), and the story is really huge. In Dr. No, we never learn what the villain is up to. In From Russia With Love, the villains want to kill Bond and steal a decryption device. In Goldfinger, the title character wants to enrich himself monetarily. But this time, the threat is the nuclear destruction of a major city.

To accomplish this, SPECTRE must first steal a couple of nuclear bombs. This is shown during a very long first act in which Bond is only peripherally involved. [The pre-title sequence is, for the record, almost totally irrelevant to the main plot.] SPECTRE's plan is ingenious, if far-fetched, but even more far-fetched is the fact that Bond just happens to be staying in the same clinic as one of the SPECTRE principals. Bond meets a man called Lippe who has a suspicious tattoo on his wrist, so he begins snooping around the man's room. Personally, if I were involved in an international criminal organization, I would be careful not to advertise, but then I'm not Count Lippe. This is your standard Bondian weak plotting at work, and true fans of the series, if they notice it at all, gamely agree not to mind. And so shall I.

Once the bombs are stolen, Bond completes his convalescence and returns to active duty, where he attends a briefing along with the other 8 'double-0' agents. Clues he picked up at the clinic lead him to Nassau, where the fun really begins. This is the part where you can stop paying attention and just enjoy the action set-pieces, because there's precious little plot from here on in. Once again, we know who the villain is right away (though how Bond knows that, I confess, I cannot guess). Bond and his utterly disposal band of heroes (including the worst Felix Leiter thus far) must find the bombs before SPECTRE's approaching deadline.

The search takes them underwater, often. Seriously, this film looks like it was conceived by a diving fetishist. I am reliably informed that many of these sequences, including the "climactic" underwater battle, are revolutionary in terms of the art of film making, but they are dramatically flat. No dialogue, you see. Fortunately, most of Bond's underwater excursions are brief and sufficiently entertaining. Above the waves, Bond plays the old "meet the villain socially" game and gets in good with his very attractive "niece". This all goes on for quite a while, and the next thing you know the film is over.

It's not that simple, obviously, but once the story gets to Nassau it really just rambles on and on for a while until it finally stops. Before it does, however, you get that "climactic" underwater battle scene, which not climactic at all. It's a huge dramatic letdown. Not only is there no dialogue underwater, but the action is also painfully slow. I know this isn't the film makers fault, but that doesn't make it any more fun to sit through.

On paper, Thunderball is an excellent movie. Production of it cost more than twice as much as Goldfinger, which itself cost more than twice as much as Dr. No, and it shows. Unfortunately, the plot just doesn't cut it.

Bottom line: Bigger is not always better.

UPDATE: Click here to get Ed's take on Thunderball. The Bond Project will continue with You Only Live Twice.
Yes, He Did. You may have noticed that lots of conservatives are bitching (yes, that really is the best word for it) about the New York Times telling the world that Kissinger opposed the Bush Re-election Strategy (otherwise known as the Bush Foreign Policy on Iraq). John Judis noticed, and he wrote about it for The American Prospect. Basically, it's more conservative lies. Kissinger agrees with Bush to a very great extent, it's true. He agrees that Iraq is dangerous, that Saddam is a threat, and we'd all be better off if Iraq were a flourishing liberal democracy encouraging free elections, freedom of the press, and religious tolerance. Guess what: everyone agrees with Bush about that. Even me.

What Kissinger disagrees with is the idea that we ought to invade Iraq, preferably now, and kill Saddam. It's an uncomfortable position for me to take, but I'm with Kissinger.

You know, with an administration as secretive as this one, it's hard to know what's really going on. But it's not so hard to guess. When the hawks respond to criticism with ad hominem attacks and willful misrepresentations, it tells you something about the strength of their position.
NEA Smear Campaign. A great site that I don't read as much as I'd like to is See The Forest. Yesterday, there was a terrific post about this whole attack campaign against the NEA. If you read The Daily Howler everyday, you already know all about this. [And if you don't, you should.] Anyway, See the Forest has fun with google and uses the results to get inside the mechanics of a right-wing smear campaign. It's highly instructive, and all the usual suspects are involved.
Hard Truths. Salman Rushdie is saying what we all know but is all too seldom said. Furthermore, he's doing it in a very balanced manner, which is nice. Apparently, the State Department (which is lately seeming like the last bastion of good sense in an utterly off-the-rails executive branch, even if they too have no shortage of criticism) will soon be hosting a conference on anti-Americanism. This is, of course, a response to the subversive, liberal, "hate America first" crowd. These traitorous wretches are of the highly heretical opinion that people do things for reasons, and people feel things for reasons, and when those actions and feelings pose a serious violent threat against U.S. citizens and interests, it might not be a bad idea to investigate what those reasons are.

Rushdie starts off by categorizing many types of anti-Americanism in a passage surely to be appreciated (if read) by many conservative commentators. Many anti-American sentiments are really not worth investigating, as they amount to so much sour grapes. This essential talking point of the right ("They hate us because we're beautiful") is true, to an extent. Rushdie begins with a harsh criticism of much anti-Americanism, but lingers to focus on such criticisms that have real merit, real import, and real effect on the world.

Clearly, America has pissed off lots of people. This is inevitable, but it can also be mitigated by good policy. When Bush talks about fighting a war on terror, but he willfully ignores some terrorists and focuses only on others, this naturally pisses off a lot of people (people sympathetic to the terrorists we're going after, and people victimized by the terrorists we ignore). One answer would be to actually do what Bush said we were going to do and really wage a bona fide war on terror. But not even those brilliant speech-writers who coined that immortal phrase had ever dreamed of doing such a thing. It was simply never on the table.

So, the first rule of winning friends and influencing people on the world stage is to mean what you say and say what you mean. Politically, this is always difficult (which is simply a function of the competing policy and political interests that all elected officials must weigh). For this administration, it's impossible.

Rushdie also makes a dire warning: "...and if, in the present highly charged atmosphere, the United States does embark on the huge, risky military operation suggested Monday by Vice President Dick Cheney, then the result may very well be the creation of that united Islamic force that was bin Laden's dream. " This is really the gravest danger we face in our war on terrorism. Bin Laden sees the world through a very strict us v. them perspective. It's fundamentalist Islam against the World, and he means to win. Because bin Laden has been able to appropriate the plight of the Palestinians to his own struggle (though the two are not really directly related), he is able to capture the support of non-fundamentalist Muslims who support Palestinian statehood. The best way to defuse bin Laden is to embrace the Palestinian cause. This is, obviously, much more complicated than it sounds, given the situation on the ground in Israel.

But the point stands that as long as the United States is so closely allied to an Israeli administration which is itself acting as an impediment to lasting peace in the region (with more than a little help from fundamentalist Islamic terrorist groups like Hamas), Arab anti-Americanism will swell, which plays directly into the hands of Osama bin Laden. [Where is he, by the way? - the question deserves to be asked on a daily basis.]

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Better Late Than Never. Today's only the second day of law school, and it's already very demanding. So, I've been neglecting you all terribly. I'm so sorry.

But, just so you know I haven't completely forgotten you, I want to draw your attention to three lovely columns in today's New York Times, one each by Kristof, Krugman, and James Bamford. It's a three-punch combo delivered to the chin of the Bush administration, and every punch connects hard.

Monday, August 26, 2002

The New Rush. Check out this great article aboutSean Hannity. I don't know much about the guy. I watched his show, "Hannity and Colmes", a couple of times. My first reaction was that Alan Colmes must be the only guy they could have used that wouldn't have made Hannity look like a little frat-boy twerp in a suit. [Hey, I never promised to play nice.]

The article is less about Hannity than about fact-checking the living fuck out of his new book, "Let Freedom Ring". I haven't read the book, nor had I so much as heard of it. So, all I can add is: man, is that ever a lame, pandering, unimaginative title or what? Anyway, much like Ann Coulter's "Slander" and Michael Moore's "Stupid White Men" (fairness, fairness, fairness), it's riddled with errors, misstatements, distortions, and lies.

This is also a problem that needs to be addressed. Freedom of the press is great, and I wouldn't want to do anything that might impinge on it, but there ought to be a way to encourage publishers to fact-check their own books. If I were a publisher, I wouldn't print a supposedly non-fiction book that contained half so mcuh fiction as these books. But what's the answer? I don't know.
Ok, Just Calm Down a Minute. I'm sure a lot of people were disturbed, as I was, by this story in the Washington Post about Bush's lawyers telling him that he can invade Iraq without the consent of basically anybody. The story went on to say that many White House advisors are telling Bush to get Congressional approval anyway, because it'll look better. This struck me as being roughly analogous to telling a seven-year-old boy that he may stay up late watching Nightmare on Elm Street 5, but that he shouldn't because it's really scary and will give him nightmares (and it's really, really awful). What's that boy going to do?

But seriously, there are two entirely separate issues involved. What most bloggers have concerned themselves with is the political issue, for obvious reasons. For political reasons, I think that Bush must get Congressional approval before launching an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation. But is he legally obligated to do so? That is a really complicated question. And today was only my first day of law school. And I don't have Constitutional Law until next term. There are valid arguments to make on both sides (but the arguments as presented in the article lead me to believe that the White House does not have the authority, in law, to go it alone... but that's just a lay opinion, so feel free to disregard).

But politically, the White House should get Congressional support, and they should want Congressional support. The trouble is that popular support has been slipping steadily since last fall, and it has been dropping faster since everyone in the country (except Bush) started arguing the issue. If I were a White House advisor, I would tell Bush to get a Congressional Resolution passed as soon as possible, and then start the war as soon as possible. If a Congressional Resolution didn't look likely, I would advise Bush to start the war as soon as possible. Why? Because there are many people, in Congress, and just ordinary Americans, who will support a war in the present tense that they would oppose in the future tense.

Now, is it me, or is that a disgusting way for a democracy to function? Either way, it's a simple, practical reality. I would for a fuller discussion of the relative war powers of the executive and legislative branches to come out of this mess. It's really something we need figure out. As long as there is doubt about whether or not the White House can do it without Congress, the White House will do it without Congress, which then retroactively removes the doubt (as that would become precedent from then on). It is a pretty serious structural flaw in our method of government that ought to be addressed at some point.

Sunday, August 25, 2002

Baker Advises on Iraq. Ok, I don't know anything military policy or warfare or anything like that. As a certified, card-carrying liberal, I'm required by the bylaws to plaintively hum John Lennon songs whenever the issue of war comes up, so, you know, it's not my best subject. Nevertheless, I can't help thinking that it's a really bad thing, if you're a chief executive, to have everybody and his grandmother publically offering their own take on your own war policy. It's got to be especially embarrassing if they are all a lot more nuanced and realistic than your hokey, Wild West-inspired announcements.

Such is the case with James Baker's (shudder) column in today's New York Times. He basically skeptches out a whole new position on the Iraq debate: the moderate hawk. Baker basically argues that regime change is absolutely the right policy, and even Clinton knew that, so all we're really talking about is how to do it. He argues that only a full-scale military invasion will do the trick, but that we should bend-over backwards to avoid having to do it alone. He comes just short of saying "If you've got to do it alone, don't do it at all." He roundly criticizes the White House for airing their internal squabbles in public, and he says that Bush needs to show stronger leadership on the issue within the White House, in America, and around the world.

There's actually a lot to agree with in that. There's a lot to disagree with, too. First, on the assumption that regime change is and must be the U.S. Policy on Iraq, he's a little too simplistic. Sure, getting rid of Saddam would be a fine thing, but you have to factor in some sort of cost-benefit analysis at some point. At some point, the costs (and I construe the word "costs" as broadly as possible to include the cost in dollars, in blood, and in U.S. political capital around the world, among other things) outweigh the benefits. I think a full-scale America-only invasion of Iraq is far too costly. I think a full-scale Broad-Coalition invasion of Iraq is debatable.

Baker also dissembles a bit on the difficulty of going to war to kill a single man. He does mention that it will be tough to find Saddam, and tells us as an example that it took two weeks to find Noriega in far better conditions. That set off my bullshit alarm. It's August 2002, we're talking about going to war to kill a single man, and this guy brings up Noriega as an example. Excuse, Mr. Baker, did you notice the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the middle of the room? With a beard. And a turban.

Oh, Baker also commits the very common linguistic mistake of using the word "ejected" when he meant to say "left of their own volition" in reference to the U.N. weapons inspectors.