Friday, January 31, 2003

State of the Union - Reaction (Iraq). Surprise, surprise, but you're humble blogger was not persuaded by the President's fearmongering this past Tuesday night. I'll try to explain why.

Nukes are the only WMDs. This is a contentious notion, but I think the definition of weapons of mass destruction to include chemical and biological weapons is highly misleading. The whole concept is pretty fuzzy, as a matter of fact. Consider that the allied powers killed more people in Dresden than in Hiroshima (it just took longer). So clearly, the whole weapons of mass destruction thing isn't directly about how many people might be killed. Be that as it may, Bush relied on high-ball estimates of death-tolls to make his case that we have to go to war over the possibility that Saddam might have components which could be used to make chemical and biological weapons. We don't have a whole lot of direct historical evidence of the practical potential of these weapons. We had the subway terrorists in Japan, and the Anthrax letters here, neither of which killed as many people as the D.C. Snipers. The kinds of high-ball estimates war-hawks come up with are pretty clearly ridiculous. Sure, if 100,000 people were locked in an unventilated domed football stadium, they'd have a problem. [Does it matter that some of them would probably be trampled to death rather than killed by chemical weapons? No, probably not.]

Clearly, nuclear weapons are serious business. North Korea has some, which is precisely the reason why the Bush administration is not threatening to attack him. Certainly, preventing a madman like Saddam from getting nukes is an important goal. [Preventing a madman like Gen. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan from getting them is also an important goal, but we blew that one. Preventing a madman like Kim Jong Il from getting them was also an important goal, and Bush really screwed the pooch on that one.] So, why not war? Well, is war really necessary to prevent Saddam from developing nukes? Maybe, but I doubt it. The inspectors have as yet found no evidence that Saddam has restarted his nuclear development program. They will continue looking, unless US bombs start getting in the way. Even if we assume that there is a nuclear program idden somewhere in Iraq, the fact that it must be hidden not only from satellites but also from a team of dedicated inspectors specifically looking for it, means that it won't be making a lot of progress. Similarly, so long as international pressure and attention are focused on Iraq, it won't be easy for him to acquire materials and transport them to their intended destination. [As opposed to North Korea, which can move reactor rods and things like that literally in broad daylight, cheerily waving to the US spy satellites as they go.]

As far as all of the stuff in the speech showing that Saddam is a really bad guy... well, no shit. Fact is, all of those horrible things Saddam has done he was doing back when he was our ally. In fact, all of those things have been done by people who are now our allies. As Micahel Kinsley recently argued in Slate, this argument is complete bullshit. Bush doesn't even believe in it, or he'd be arguing for going to war against other bad men all over the world. He just threw it in to strengthen the rhetorical argument, but it completely misses the point of the real debate.

The biggest shortfall of Bush's presentation is that he completely ignored the policy argument, which is crucial (at least to me). Even if you agree that the United States has a moral and legal right to invade Iraq on whatever pretext they eventually come up with (if any), based on whichever justification you choose to accept, you still have to show that it's a good idea. In order to do that, you have to balance the benefits and the costs. The benefits are potentially very large, but vague. I mean, you're not going to make America any safer from Iraq. The United States couldn't be safer if it were on a different planet. Iraq can't get his weapons, if he has them, to the United States, end of story. [I know, he could sell them to terrorists, but he never has before, and our own CIA reports that he's never shown any inclination to do so. Of course, terrorists could buy from Pakistan, couldn't they? Or North Korea?] So what are the benefits? Well, you've got the neo-conservative faction in the White House having wet dreams every night about a pro-US democratic stronghold smack in the middle of the Middle East, sitting on a huge oil reserve to boot. Hey, if that happened, it would be wonderful. I mean, seriously, that would be a fantastic result. This can't justify war in a legal or moral sense, but it would in a policy sense, if we thought we could pull it off.

I have serious doubts that we can, and the point hasn't been adequately addressed by the White House. I mean, there are difficulties. This administration has been very explicit on its disdain for "nation-building". Well, you're never going to establish a viable pro-Western democracy in Iraq without nation-building on steroids, and it'll probably take a pretty long time even with that. Just take a look at how the half-assed approach has worked in Afghanistan. Warlords, terrorists, and the Taliban are still around causing mischief, and the new government is not exactly stable, or even established throughout the entire country. And if the administration doesn't get it right in Iraq, it could be a disaster. A literally bloody disaster.

Of course, then you have the distinct possibility that an occupation of Iraq, even more than simply an invasion, would stoke anti-American fervor such that we've never known. This brings with it an increased risk of further terrorist attacks directed against this country, which could actually make us less safe. Surely, that has to count against the policy support we're talking about.

On balance, if the goal is to protect Americans from threats posed by Saddam Hussein, I think a continuing system of inspections, backed by international support and the credible threat of force, is perfectly adequate. Indeed, sometimes the threat of force is more effective even than force. Consider that our own intelligence agencies have stated publicly that a "get Saddam" invasion might compel the bastard to use whatever nasty weapons he might have (which he declined to do in the first Gulf War), because, face it, what's he got to lose? It's nothing that fits neatly on a protester's sign, but this is my reasoning for opposing war in Iraq.

It's moot, naturally, because we're absolutely no doubt about it going to be at war in Iraq before the end of March. [I say that hoping that my terrible recod of prognistication, i.e. the 2002 elections, will work in my favor for a change.] I just hope that, for once, Bush doesn't fuck it up.

Thursday, January 30, 2003

State of the Union - Reaction (Domestic). Sorry for the delay, folks. I'm really busy lately with school. Anyway, I want to say a few things about the domestic agenda portion of Bush's Tuesday speech. I must say I was a litte surprised. I mean, this was a Clintonian laundry-list of domestic programs. I really ddidn't expect to see that. Of course, it was all crap.

Let's start with the economy. He claimed that accelerating and making permanent the tax cuts will stimulate the economy. That is a lie. Not an error, a lie. This President doesn't care about stimulating the economy, apparently. We've had the tax cut of 2001, the post-9/11 economic stimulus package, that sham summit in Texas last summer, constant calls to accelerate and make permanent the 2001 tax cut, and now a call for the repeal of dividends taxes. We've already seen how brilliantly this plan has worked so far. The fact is, not one of these measures can really be called stimulative. The President simply isn't trying to stimulate the economy (or, he's just utterly and persistently wrong about which policies would do it). My mind boggles. This guy knows that if the economy is in the tank in October 2004, he's probably a goner. You'd think he might actually try to fix the economy.

He also mentioned the deficit, sort of. Last year, he told us that we would have a small, short-term deficit. I didn't believe it at the time. I was right. We now have a large deficit (and it will probably swell to huge before the end of this year), and it's going to be with us for a while. Certainly, Bush's deficit will outlive Bush's presidency, regardless of what happens in two years. Is that what he meant about not leaving messes for future presidents to clean up? Anyway, deficit-hawk Bush admonished Congress that the United States has to spend within its means. I seriously don't know how all those people managed not to laugh at this line. First, how much new spending did Bush propose in the very same speech? Hundreds of billions of dollars. Second, we're going to war with Iraq, which isn't going to be cheap. Oh, but don't worry about ballooning deficits. Bush will save money by blocking essential money for homeland security, refusing to fund his own education initiative, and changing the way the government accountants do their math, so all goverment budget projections reflect this President's essential economic optimism.

Notice what gets slashed when te money gets tight? We can't afford Homeland Security, we can't afford to do a proper invsitgation of 9/11, we can't afford a real prescription drug benefit, we can't afford education. We can afford tax cuts with for the very wealthiest Americans, not to mention the corporations, and we can afford to go to war with Iraq.

We can also afford to give loads of money to religious organizations to help us treat drug addicts. Forget doctors, all you junkies need is a little Jesus. I knew it was too good to be true when I heard this president talking about treatment programs, rather than prison, for drug addicts. I knew there was a catch. The catch is that the money isn't going to reputable, medical, drug treament programs. The money is going to religious organizations. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure these religious groups are good groups that do good work and help people, but this is just a crass bribe to the right-wing Christian extremist faction of the party, cleverly disguised as crass pandering to the liberals. Here's the clue: this president NEVER panders to the left. So, add Christian groups to the list of welfare beneficiaries getting rich off the hard labor of other people, and getting fat sucking at the teet of the American taxpayer. C'mon libertarians, speak up about this shit, you spineless intellectual frauds!

OF couse, we'll have lots of money going to help fight AIDS in Africa. This is insane. First of all, a lot of this money is also going to religious groups. In fact, the vast majority of it is going to religious groups. The established, reputable organization which is really trying to save lives in Africa is getting a pittance. Come on, did you really think this administration would care about stopping AIDS in Africa? Of course not. They want to talk about it, because they want people to forget about Trent Lott, the disgraced bigot who was punished by being given a committee chair. But they don't want to help. Why? Because helping requires two things: condoms, and cheap drugs. This Administration hates condoms. Bush forced abstinence-only sex education in Texas, and wants to do the same for the whole country. It failed in Texas, and it will fail everywhere. [And please explain how a no-sex-before-marriage policy will stop the spread of AIDS among gays, who are legally barred in this country from marrying.] The Adminstration hates cheap generic drugs, because they get massive campaign donations from companies that make the expensive brand-name drugs. Thousands of people in Africa have died over the last two years because this Administration has refused to allow them access to cheap generic drugs. We have an export ban, if you can believe that. Human lives are worth nothing compared to the corporate profits of political donors.

Of course, the best moment is when Bush promised money to develop a hydrogen-powered car. That's right, Tucker, Bush wants to abolish the internal combustion engine. Oh, when I heard that I was delighted. Not that I believe him for an instant, of course. But after the howling, derisive laughter which greeted Al Gore when he came up with this plan twenty-five years ago, I feel that Gore has been proved right once again. Of course, there are some serious doubts about the particular policy Bush is talking about. Clean cars are a wonderful goal, but apparently the generation of hydrogen itself requires a great deal of energy, which would probably come from dirty-burning fossil fuels. Besides, if Bush really gave a shit about pollution or fuel-efficiancy, he would offer funding to Detroit to start bringing out hybrid cars like the Japanese are already doing, which are becoming more and more popular in the states. It's great that we can try to achieve technological breakthroughs for twenty years from now, but why not take advantage of the technology that's already available now to reduce American dependence on foreign oil now? The future can do whatever it wants, but as long as GWB is in office, American dependence on foreign oil will not be interfered with.

He talked about other things too, but those are the big ones. One of these days, I am going to write about his tort reform plan, but I'd rather devote an entire post to that topic, because it's very important to me. I'll be back later to discuss the foreign policy portion of the speech. See you soon!

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

State of Dis-Union. The buzz surrounding tonight's State of the Union address is picking up steadily. My friend Sarah, with whom I will be watching, describes the annual speech as "the Emmy's of politics". She is, of course, being facetious, but I think she's genuinely excited to see what Barbara Boxer is going to wear. Like countless other political junkies around the county, I will be on the edge of my seat waiting for the merest suggestion... the slightest hint... that Hillary Clinton might roll her eyes. I have a lot of money riding on this. And of course, there's the pool to guess how many times the President will say "nukular". I'm going with four. I don't know why, I just have a really good feeling about four.

But, putting all of that good fun aside for a moment, there is actually a pretty heavy undertone to this year's exercise in political theater. After all, we're going to be going to war soon. Not to mention the fact that the economy sucks. And with Bush's poll numbers dropping steadily since New Year's Day, this is a pretty damn big speech for him. Last year's State of the Union was a guaranteed love-fest. This year's... well, we'll see. He could blow it and jeopardize his whole foreign-policy agenda. A Washington backlash is a powerful thing. On the other hand, he might kick some serious rhetorical ass and Washington will resume fellatio-mode faster than you can say "Where's Osama?". I think it's likely that he'll do pretty well, his poll numbers will jump up a bit, and support for war will increase in the United States, and around the world, just enough to get it started by early to mid March.

After that happens... who knows? In today's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof reminds us that there's still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding this war. Surely, few people seriously doubt that the United States will win the military end of it without too much problem, but the question remains: what happens then? Kristof echoes Gary Hart's recent worries that invading Iraq could trigger renewed and re-invigorated anti-Americanism, which might spark retaliation by fundamentalist terrorists.

Of course, everyone has Iraq on the mind (and nobody is talking about North Korea, al Qaeda, or any of the other lurking dangers out there), and tonight's speech will probably live or die by how well the pundit-class thinks it addresses that issue. The speech is coming at a time of rising disagreement with the "Get Saddam" policy which had been fairly popular over most of the last year. Especially now that inspections have started, which even wimpy pinko commie leftist libruls like me strongly support, a lot of people are wondering if war is really necessary anymore. Aren't inspection a superior alternative to war? Joe Conason certainly thinks so: "Maintaining military pressure on Iraq while the inspectors carry out their tasks, even if it takes several months, is a far saner and less expensive proposition than an invasion whose consequences cannot be foreseen." Christ, even Norman Schwarzkopf thinks Bush (and especially Rumsfeld) should shut the fuck up and let the inspectors do their job.

And Josh Marshall, who has made the only intelligent argument in support of war that I've seen from anyone, thinks the inspectors should at least have the opportunity to complete their work. "We signed on to inspections. Like it or not, we did. It's very hard for us to say the process has run its course. Hard to say primarily since it's not true."

We'll see what happens. If I have a chance, I'll post reactions tonight after I get home. But I might wait until morning.

Monday, January 27, 2003

Bullshit, &c. I just noticed this post from Friday morning up at &c., the blog run by The New Republic. If you read the magazine, you know that they are very hawksih on the Iraq issue. If you read Terminus, you know that I'm not. (Guess where this post is going.) Anyway, here's the quote: "[I]t seems to us that the only morally acceptable reason to support the use of force is that it gets you to an outcome--regime change and assured disarmament--that you couldn't possibly achieve diplomatically. You may not think that's worth the price. But in that case you don't support diplomacy, you support doing nothing."

Actually, you support containment. It's like this: I want the United States, and the United Nations, to keep a very close watch on Saddam Hussein's arsenal of weapons. All of them. We should be engaged actively in trying to prevent him from obtaining nuclear weapons, and we should try to find and dismantle any biological or chemical weapons he has. We should also keep careful track of his missile fleet. We should know how many he has, where they are, and what kind of range they have. I don't think regime change or disarmament (even assured disarmament) are compelling goals. Iraq, whether Saddam is in charge or not, is not capable of threatening the United States. Iraq is capable of threatening some of its neighbors, including key strategic allies of the United States like Israel and Saudi Arabia. And I take that seriously. But does it justify a war? I don't see how.

Ten years ago, Iraq had invaded Kuwait. Sure, we had a debate about whether or not to go to war, and why shouldn't we? I mean, if we're going to be sending soldiers into battle, I want debate, I want discussion, and (ideally) I want broad public support. But ten years ago, Iraq was clearly in the wrong. I'm not saying he's in the right now, but what has he done since then? Ok, he's violated the terms of the cease-fire, which arguably gives the United States a legal and moral right to invade, but don't give me that shit. We're talking about human beings fighting and dying. Don't give me legal trivialities.

I agree that regime change and assured disarmament probably won't come without war. I agree that those goals are "good". Supporters of war agree, or at least claim to agree, that war is "bad". All we're arguing about is the relative value of these "goods" and "bads". What strikes me is that this is exactly the sort of international adventurism that Republicans decried during the Clinton years. Saddam isn't going to kill Americans unless there's a war. Isn't that what we're supposed to be concerned about above all else? Isn't that what September 11th was supposed to teach us, that we have to do much better to protect ourselves from overseas threats? Saddam Hussein is not a threat... not to us. And, insofar as he is a threat to our strategic allies, he can be contained without war, as he has been for the last twelve years. That being the case, the "goods" of regime change and assured disarmament are only marginally "better" than the status quo, and they entail a far higher cost.

We shouldn't do nothing. We should keep inspectors in Iraq. We should engage diplomatically to make progress in the area of disarmament. Just like Clinton did with North Korea, we offer Saddam Hussein economic aid in return for access. Right now, we're offering Saddam the opportunity to avoid war in return for access. Saddam, like most intelligent observers of world politics, doesn't believe for a second that war can be averted as lon as Dubya is in charge, so he's not really inclined to give much access. Give him a carrot, and maybe he'll play ball. Even if he doesn't, international diplomatic pressure (backed up by the credible possibility of force, i.e., the status quo) can achieve much at a very low human cost.

The post from "&c." (click here) oversimplifies the issues and demeans the reasonable alternate view. This is indicative of a certain intellectual desperation. It's hardly surprising. It must be frutrating to be stuck supporting a policy that even the White House can't decently justify. We'll all be watching the State of the Union tomorrow to see what Bush has come up with big time. Those folks at The New Republic are feverish hoping to be given a more concrete leg to stand on.

Sunday, January 26, 2003

Why No War? Here's a great quote from that great blogger Max Sawicky: "It may be legal by U.S. and/or UN strictures for war to be waged. There may be some justifications for war. But there is nowhere near enough justification for war in light of the potential costs to U.S. national security." This is an elegant statement of a position that has been slowly crystallizing in my head for the last couple of weeks. Note that Max, in the brief quote above, makes no reference to Weapons of Mass Distruction, he makes no reference to weapons inspectors. He makes no reference to some potential coalition. He simply says that the benefits of war don't away the potential costs. In other words: bad policy.

The Bad Policy argument has gotten extremely short shrift in the national debate. I think the reason for this is largely political. Bush backed the dems into a corner by forcing them to vote on the Iraq resolution before Election Day. The dems voted yes, and they went back to their home states and beat their chests about voting yes. "No, we're not anti-war Weenies, no sir. Rush Limbaugh is talking about other democrats, who are Weenies, but not me. I'm with President Bush!" Many of those cowardly dimwits got spanked by the electorate, who reasoned "Why vote for a pretend Republican when I could vote for a real one?" But, thanks to the powerful advantage of incumbancy, many of them were returned to Washington.

So, they're kind of locked in, aren't they? I mean, if war was justified in late October of 2002, why not in late January of 2003? That's why the debate has shifted to a whole bunch of bogus issues. Bogus Issue Number One: Do you think the United States should invade Iraq without a resolution from the United Nations? What the crap is this one all about? Think about it. What possible differece does it make to the question of war as policy whether or not the UN votes for it? It makes no difference. Going to war with Iraq is Bad Policy regardless of whether France vetoes or merely abstains. Even if you think the war is good policy, the UN vote of confidence makes no real difference.

So why have dems insisted so loudly that the White House go through UN channels? Because they are hoping that the UN will do what they couldn't do and stand up to Bush's lunatic scheme to put American soldiers in danger for no good reason. The more interesting question: why have Americans bought it? You see in polls all over the place that, given the UN's blessing, Americans are far more comfortable with the idea of war with Iraq than they are otherwise. What gives? The only explanation I can think of is that the people don't trust the White House. Bush is trying to convince the American people that war in Iraq is a good idea. The American people aren't exactly sure. We have doubts. So we say "What does Kofi Annan think?" That's remarkable to me. Thanks to Bush's naked political lust for war, the people of this country are actually taking the UN seriously. That might be the single greatest achievement of the Bush II presidency.

Bogus Issue Number Two: Do you think the United States should invade Iraq alone, without first building an international coalition of support like we did in 1991? Please, the US military can handle Iraq all by itself. True, the lack of support within the Middle East will make things more complicated, but we can take these guys. Insisting on the formation of the coalition reflects two major misgivings, I think. First, it's just like the UN case above. We want to know that other "adults in charge" think this is a good idea. We don't trust Dubya, but if a bunch of other world leaders are behind it, especially democratically elected world leaders, well then, maybe Dubya's got the right idea after all. If not, then he must simply have a naked political lust for war. He should just watch Full Metal Jacket, masturbate, and leave us out of it. Second, a coalition reduces both the human and economic costs of war. The US won't have to pay for everything. The Brits can pay for some, the French, the Germans, etc. And some of those people will suely get killed too, and it won't just be all American kids. Somehow it makes it all a little better to know that British poor black kids will be killed in addition to American poor black kids.

There's much more to say on this subject, but I'm getting bored, frankly. I'll have more to say on the Bad Policy argument before the State of the Union address. In the meantime, check out Max's post, which hits most of the points I'm thinking of, here.